The unholy alliance of ‘native advertising’

This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin November 2013

Call me old-fashioned but I think there is something sacred about the editorial columns of a newspaper.

I was brought up to believe in the existence of church and state, where the editorial church had a higher calling than the distinctly temporal commercial side of the newspaper.

Like all true believers I had scripture on my side: journalism was to be independent, fair, balanced and free of bias – it was undeniable, accepted wisdom. It was also all of the things that an advertisement did not have to be.

So I have to admit that I approach the subject of ‘sponsored content’ or ‘native advertising’ with some preconceived notions.

One of those notions is that people tend to think that if it looks like a news story, reads like a news story and is placed with other news stories, it’s probably a news story. That preconception is the very thing upon which ‘native advertising’ hopes to capitalize. In a similar way, ‘sponsored content’ has all the characteristics of a news story but it is there only because someone paid for it to be there.

You may be asking: What has changed? For decades newspapers have been running advertising supplements and material labeled under that execrable corruption ‘advertorial’. However, in the case of the former, there has been a clear distinction between this revenue-generating material and the news columns and the latter has been made distinct from editorial content (during my own editorship by requiring that it did not use editorial fonts and was labeled top centre).

‘Sponsored content’ arguably includes relatively innocuous subjects such as travel stories written by journalists on acknowledged ‘freebies’ and reviews of performances for which tickets were provided. However, its current incarnation in North America includes not only sponsored special sections and features but also individual items placed within the news columns. The terms ‘sponsored content’ and ‘native advertising’ have become somewhat interchangeable.

‘Native advertising’ seeks to remove distinctions between advertising and editorial content to, in the words of one pundit, “look more like content you actually want to read.” It had its genesis in the anarchic world of the Internet on sites whose operators either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction between church and state. From there it has migrated to the sites of established news organisations and into print. Forbes magazine promotes its online Brandvoice service that allows marketers to “use the same platform as Forbes writers and contributors” and in March the Washington Post began an online equivalent called Brandconnect. In August the Washington Post began pitching native advertising to print advertisers.

However, in January the venerable magazine The Atlantic attracted widespread criticism for (briefly) carrying on its website a ‘native advertisement’ promoting the Church of Scientology and the Mashable website was investigated by the US marketing industry watchdog for a 20-part technology series that was part of a marketing campaign for a new computer chip. Now the Federal Trade Commission has announced a hearing into sponsored content, concerned about the lack of clear guidelines.

Inevitably this part of the world will have to grapple with the issue that, for now, is generally confined to clearly identified ‘special report’ sections. The need for clear guidelines goes without saying. So, too, does the need for these guidelines to be readily available to readers – online AND in print. There is also a need to draw some demarcation lines between church and state.

I am not so naïve as to think that a holier-than-thou attitude should prevail in these days of dire newspaper economics. New ways of creating revenue have to be found and it is pointless being so restrictive that the decline becomes terminal. That does not, however, prevent us from drawing some deep lines in the sand.

No ‘native advertising’ should appear as individual items in the general news and business columns, in established commentary columns, or on the op-ed pages. No ‘native advertising’ or ‘sponsored content’ should appear in editorial columns unless control of the content is in the hands of editorial staff. Any such material must be clearly labeled (and that includes a prohibition on greying out) – in a manner that leaves the reader in no doubt over the nature of the content. A disclosure statement, setting out any conditions of publication, should appear at the end of the material.

If this appears onerous it is the price that needs to be paid in order to preserve the one thing without which any news organization will die – trust. Readers trust us to ensure that a news story meets all of the basic tenets of journalism and, as US newspaperman Pete Hamill put it, if “acts of trust and faith are absent or shrugged off, the newspaper usually goes downscale and keeps going all the way to the bottom of the grave.”

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