Trust May be Eroding with Native Advertising

I remember how dirty I felt after I wrote my first advertorial.

I was in northern Indiana in the mid-1990s, working for a small family business, and we sold post frame buildings (among other things). An advertising salesperson from our local weekly newspaper approached us with a new advertising idea: buy a half page ad for $300, and we could put in our own half page article.

“But isn’t that dishonest?” I asked. I’d been a newspaper humor columnist for a few years and believed in the so-called “separation of church and state,” the separation of money from news. Advertising couldn’t influence content, in order to prevent newspapers from spiking negative stories about their advertisers.

“Oh no,” said the rep. “Newspapers are totally embracing this new model. It will look like a news story, but we’ll put a disclaimer on it so people will know it’s not.”

I ended up writing the story myself because I didn’t trust any of their writers. They had already crossed that ethical boundary. I didn’t want someone claiming that our buildings would protect people from meteor storms or giant robots.

The disclaimer was a single word — “advertisement” — in 8 point type at the top of the article.

Fast forward to nearly 20 years later and the wall between church and state has been eroded away to nothing more than an old fence post and a place where the grass won’t grow right.

As a marketer, I’m always willing to take advantage of any and all marketing opportunities. I’ll stick my logo on a race car for $10,000, or an ad on Google for 50 cents a click, or I’ll give you $500 if you’ll tattoo my logo on your forehead.

But I worry about what native advertising is doing to American journalism. I worry about it from both sides of the same coin. (John Oliver sums it up nicely in this video from his HBO show.)

On the one hand, as more people try to escape and ignore advertising — web browser ad blockers, DVR fast forwarding, closing their eyes on the highway — putting ads into the news is a great new opportunity to reach them. If we can grab a few new eyeballs in the middle of a newspaper, news website, or TV news broadcast, that’s money well spent.

On the other, I’m still a newspaper columnist who still believes in the integrity of journalism. (Admittedly, I’m a humor columnist who writes about camel farts and the Oxford comma, but I have my standards.)

Here’s the problem: I believe native advertising, if not done properly, blurs the distinction between advertising and news so thoroughly, people can’t tell if something is a native ad or a real news story. And while this should cheer up marketers, because it means more people are likely to believe the story (and therefore buy their product), marketers should be a little worried that people are losing their trust in the media and marketers.

As someone whose feet are planted firmly in both the journalistic and marketing world, I encourage marketers to approach native advertising with caution. Don’t try to fool your audience by using 6 point text and confusing language to say something is paid for, and not real objective news.

I worry that marketers are going to dip into the native advertising well too often and drain it dry. They’re going to use up all our goodwill by finding new and misleading ways to hide an ad’s paid-for pedigree, until eventually consumers revolt and refuse to watch/read/hear those ads any further.

By then, the public’s trust in the media will have eroded to even lower levels, which can do bigger and more permanent damage than we can currently imagine.

People will also go out of their way to avoid sponsored content and native advertising. Ad blockers will include advertising-disguised-as-news, and marketers will have to search for new and trickier ways to reach their audience. (This is where good content marketing has the advantage. Educate and provide value, and people will find you.)

I’m not saying native advertising is bad, or we shouldn’t do it. But I would encourage marketers to be more obvious and less sneaky about their sponsored content, to avoid jading consumers about the work they’re trying to do.

The last thing I want to see is a bunch of walkers on Walking Dead hawking the latest Doritos flavor.

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