The Good and Evil of Native Advertising

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Joline Buscemi



native-advertising-1.pngIf you use the internet (and since you’re reading this, I’m assuming you do) then you’ve likely encountered native advertising - whether you know it or not. You may have been on a site like Buzzfeed, reading a listicle called “25 People Having a Worse Day Than You” before realizing that it was a sponsored post promoted by an insurance company.

When you discovered you were actually reading an ad, how did you feel? If the piece was entertaining enough, you may have viewed the the company in a positive light. On the other hand, if you felt like you just wasted 5 minutes of your life reading a boring article, you probably got mad and made a negative mental note about the company.

Native advertising is hardly new. Since the early 1900s it’s been around in the form of advertorials, sponsored radio shows, and even infomercials. In the 2010s, native advertising as we know it took off, with sites like Buzzfeed pioneering the way with sponsored content. To some, it’s seen as an unobtrusive solution to advertising. To others, it feels deceitful.

By definition, native advertising is advertising that takes on the form and function of the platform it appears on. Native advertising in the form of radio shows up as announcers talking favorably about a product sponsoring the show. Infommercials are just commericials for products turned into something that resembles a television show. Today, it most often means social media posts that show up on your feed or an article about a product or company showing up in your news source. 

The question remains. As marketers, how can we use native advertising in our strategy while staying current with trends without making the people we’re trying to sell to hate us?

The Good

With that said, native advertising isn’t always evil. As much as people hate it when it's bad, they can really like it when it's good. When it's done well and makes sense for the brand, publisher and reader, native ads can be a win for your brand and a chance to spread awareness of your product or company.

Native advertising has produced some high-quality ads like this Buzzfeed article sponsored by ACUVUE, titled “11 Impossibly Cool Facts You May Not Know About Your Eyes.” The content is relevant to the brand (a contacts lens company talking about eyes) and on top of that, the facts are actually interesting and worthy of reading. A reader wouldn't be surprised to see ACUVUE sponsoring the article, and they'll be pleasantly surprised when they find themselves interested in what it has to say.

In this case, the choice of platform in supporting the ad. The ACUVUE article makes sense on Buzzfeed’s platform because readers aren't looking for hard hitting news and they're more tolerant to the content they find.

While many native ads come across as entertainment, native ads can still be good journalism. The New York Times published an article paid for by Netflix to promote its series Orange is the New Black, titled “Women Inmates: Separate But Not Equal.” The article covers women’s issues in prison–the same topics covered by the show–in an honest and fact-based way. It made sense that someone who would be interested in reading the article might also want to watch the show (even John Oliver called this piece “as good as it gets” when it comes to native advertising… though in true fashion he still didn’t like it).

This native ad was a win because it was appealing to an audience that would enjoy both the article content and the show, and it was displayed in a platform that made sense. The content was informative, and while it was clearly an ad for Orange is the New Black, the article itself wasnt promotional.

The statistics point to native advertising’s continued growth. It’s projected that 8.8 billion dollars will be spent in 2018 on native advertising, and for good reason. 53% of users say they would look at a native ad over a banner ad, and they are 18% more to show purchase intent. Consumers themselves may say that they don’t like them, but advertisers are continuing to pour money into it.

The Evil

There's one big, fat, evil reason why people hate native advertising – it can make them feel cheated, lied to, and taken advantage of. As I mentioned before, reading an article (especially if the article isn't well written) and finding that it's an advertisement in disguise can make you feel tricked. As a brand, you don't want to be associated with dishonesty in the eyes of the consumer.

Because of this, native advertising has been the subject of quite a few angry rants. Take this segment from John Oliver’s show, “Last Week Tonight” where he says that even when native advertising is clearly marked as an ad, it doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy. He cites a study by IAB that found that half of viewers could not tell the difference between native ads and actual news, and points out the advertisers are banking on consumers being too unintelligent to know otherwise.

And in typical South Park fashion, the show satirized native advertising with an episode called “Sponsored Content.” In one clip, Stephen talks about how he can’t seem to escape the ads.“It's like I'm in a black void trying to reach the news story, but then the next thing I know, I'm reading an ad for Geico. So I click out of that and try to read the news story, but it's not a news story, it's a slideshow.” It’s a familiar scene for many of us who spend time on the internet and feel attacked by advertisements.

Ads are still ads, even when they come in the form of a trustworthy looking article. And when only 20% of people can point out a native ad (as you see if some cases), you come to an ethical dilemma. If you look at native advertising as a way to “camouflage your ads to make them look like news stories,” (as Ken Auletta of The New Yorker said in the John Oliver clip) your ad might fall into the evil category.

One prominent, real-life case of native advertising gone wrong was an ad from the Church of Scientology. It was published online in The Atlantic, looking like a real article giving a rave review of the church's leader. Eleven hours later, after the integrity of it was questioned, as well as dispute about the comment section moderation came up, the ad was pulled.

Why was the ad so swiftly pulled? In this case, it came down to editorial integrity, and that the ad was not clearly marked as an ad. The article came across like a real endorsement of the Church by The Atlantic, when it was really just an ad. The Atlantic has since then created strict guidelines on native ads.

How to Make it Work For You

How do you make native advertising work for you? I’m not sure if there is a perfect answer for this that works for every situation.

One thing I know for sure–the solution to getting consumers to enjoy native advertising lies in producing better content. If an article I’m reading is truly interesting, informative, and truthful, the fact that it’s an ad is okay with me. After all, aren’t we watching the Super Bowl commericals for the entertainment factor? We know we’re watching advertisements, yet we don’t let that take away from the fact that we’re enjoying them. In fact, in one survey consumers said they would actually trust a brand more if their native ad was high quality.

Another option? Don’t create ads with the intention of tricking your audience. Those who can tell it’s an ad will see right through you, and those who realize it’s an ad after reading it will feel deceived. The negative view of your brand will stay with them long after they leave the page.

So while the solution may not be, as John Oliver suggests, putting news in advertising, it might be creating better advertising and putting it in the right kind of news. If we as marketers focus on creating high-quality content that speaks to our audience, we just might come out on top after all.

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