Strong Media Brands: the answer to Native Advertising Concerns

So is native advertising (sometimes called brand journalism or, more generally, content and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsorsmarketing) a curse or cure all?  Is it good for what ails online advertising? Or does it confuse consumers and prevent them from getting unbiased news ?

Farhad Manjoo wrote an article in the NY Times about the state and decline of banner ads. It is a good read about unintended consequences, and how the banner came to not only dominate online ads but also set the stage for other unfortunate web things.

He writes that the new trend favors native advertising, citing the experience of Jonah Peretti  – someone who has pioneered money making news sites:

After leaving The Huffington Post, Mr. Peretti started BuzzFeed, which eschews banners and has become a model for the possibilities of so-called native ads to finance journalism. These ads… look like ordinary posts on apps and social networks.

David Carr, also of the Times, does not seem to think kindly of the practice, or, of poorly executed examples.  In his story Journalism, Independent and Not, he wrote about his disappointment in finding info that at first seemed newsworthy – but was actually underwritten by a vendor, according to some very fine print.  He writes:

Of the many attempts at new approaches to publishing — native advertising, custom content, sponsored content — SugarString sets a new low… The fact that the name of the corporation bringing you the information is at the bottom of every story, not the top, is an attempt to hide the fundamental intent.

I don’t mean to single Carr out.  I generally love his column, and many others share similar concerns.  But I really think that these concerns are overblown.

I mean, c’mon, have the native ad alarmists heard of evil soap boxes that companies have called blogs?  And that strictly profit-driven entities actually have something called “owned media”.  That’s right, companies that aren’t real news outlets  try to own media and publish biased thoughts on websites and via social media channels.

I’ll take a break from my sarcasm to point out the myriad sources of news and info that people have these days.  I will eat my (nonexistent, so there you have it, I am bluffing) hat if someone points out an example in which native ads stood between a person and the news and “truth” that they were seeking.

The upside of this content-rich era is that most of us are sophisticated and discerning news consumers.  We understand that “caveat emptor” should prevail – let the buyer beware, and to not trust any single source – or at least consider the source. Most of us understand that there is likely some agenda or bias shaping the information we find on an unfamiliar website.

That does not mean that there isn’t the potential for abuse in native advertising.  E.g., I agree that sponsored content should be clearly identified.

Well, how, you may ask.  Recall the fine print that Carr mentioned in his piece.  The devil is in the details.  But the answer is not to legislate or trash native ads to death.

The answer is strong media brands.  The ones that represent integrity will hopefully not dilute their equity with thinly veiled sponsored content.  Those that abuse the practice will squander brand value and likely not profit from their efforts.

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