Going native

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January 15, 2014 by Tamara Piety

Advertising Age has an op-ed urging that marketers get out in front ethical concerns about native advertising by being more aggressive about setting ethical standards for disclosure which will “protect consumers.” The article is here.

For those unfamiliar with it, “native advertising” refers to the practice of paying “to have editorial-style content (or links to that material) featured online, in lieu of traditional advertisements.” To my mind native advertising is not that different from those full-page advertorials for weight loss, investment, supplement products and the like which you regularly see in your local newspaper except without the disclosures like the word “advertisement” at the top (unless you are the New York Times see this piece. The New York Times is adopting a very conspicuous disclosure policy for its native ads.  “Such labeling goes beyond most native ads, which typically use somewhat ambiguous language like “sponsored” or “branded” content.”)

The disclosures practice is what concerns the author Sam Ford. He urges that advertisers using native advertising need to adopt strong disclosure or transparency polices, if only to avoid regulation by the FTC or others, but more ideally to better serve consumers. “Not long ago,” he writes, “most ad content focused on hawking products and services: marketing documents, sales collateral, advertisements and press releases.”

But today, “Companies are starting to think of themselves as publishers of information, insights and entertainment tied to issues that they care most about.”  Thinking of themselves in this way “carries the potential for companies to be more committed to listening to, connecting with and ultimately serving their customers (and other audiences that might see the material). And customers can see, rather than just be told about, a company’s knowledge, passion and commitment to the issues its products and services are meant to solve.”

Unfortunately, against this rosy picture of advertisers using their role as content providers to provide “information” they are “[s]adly,..making little use of this opportunity. Rather than change the logic by which we view and communicate with our audiences, professionals in public relations, advertising and marketing are largely finding new ways to what they’ve always done: design content that promotes products and services.”

There is a reason for that. The professionals in public relations, advertising and marketing are not in the information business. They are in the promotion business. It is naive to imagine that a company is going to regularly offer “information” that might be detrimental to promoting its product. Here and there it may happen, perhaps on the impetus of some far-sighted (or maybe reckless) executive who believes that telling even unpleasant truths is, in the long-run, a better policy. But I wouldn’t count on this being a regular feature of the business. Advertisers are working for companies that are using the native advertising platform to promote a product. They are not likely to provide any information whatsoever that might undercut that goal.

And in considering the prospects for the adoption (and perhaps more importantly the compliance with) a strong voluntary disclosure or transparency policy it is perhaps worth considering why companies want to go to all the trouble of being content providers in the first place. It is not hard to figure out. The value of native content lies precisely in its ambiguous status.

This is simply a variation on what Edward Bernays, sometimes called “the father of public relations,” called “the third-party technique.” That is the process by which you gain credibility for your promotional message by putting it in the mouth of a seemingly neutral third-party. In Bernays’ time up (and continuing to this day as one method) this entailed sending out press releases and hoping that a newspaper or other media outlet reported on your news. Even better, they might quote directly from it.

Of course one short-coming of this process is that you can’t control whether or not the newspaper carries it. Enter native advertising. If you pay for it you can guarantee that they carry it. One small hitch. If it looks like advertising it probably won’t work as well because as Al & Laura Ries say in their book “The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR,” “…advertising has no credibility. It’s the self-serving voice of a company anxious to make a sale.” (xi).

Just so. that is why, Mr. Ford earnest exhortations notwithstanding, I am not holding out much hope that companies will be that aggressive in disclosing native advertising’s status as promotional material despite being tricked out in the guise of editorial content. It value is in its ambiguous status. How valuable would those paid posts on Yelp have been if positive reviews were followed by a disclaimer, “This review is a paid endorsement”? Not very I should think. What the “pay for posts” world is trying to simulate is consumer enthusiasm which may or may not exist. But being transparent would defeat the purpose.

Of course this, “we can regulate ourselves” is a regular claim of industries seeking to avoid regulation. Sometimes that works. I am not holding my breath on this one although I am not that optimistic for either the will or the ability to do much on the part of the FTC.

In any event, the native advertising trend is, to my mind, of a piece with the overall dominance of the information environment by capital. Money is speech and how. The newspaper business sadly seems almost a historical relic with a few dominant publications like The New York Times attempting to carry on. But even it and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are operating under an economic imperative which causes them to cast about for ways to raise money that ultimately undermine their existence.  So far the Times apparently has persuaded some advertisers that even conspicuously branded content will communicate the brand message more effectively than traditional advertising.  That remains to be seen. But in the meantime the blurring of editorial and promotional content continues apace to the detriment, I believe, of our information environment.

And, by the way, is there any term in the marketing/media/p.r. world more unfortunate than “native advertising”? If so, I am not sure what it is (although anyone have any other candidates feel free to send them to me). It is, at least, unfortunate.  Just like the practice.


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