Do certain types of marketing help a publication better connect a reader with a product, or is it tricking the reader into accepting advertising as fact?
The devil walks into a bar and sits at a table with eight newspaper and magazine publishers plus one strange little fellow in shabby, dated robes. The devil says, “How’d you all like to get some advertising revenue at higher rates than what you’ve been fetching for the past five or six years?”
The publishers crowd in to hear to his offer. All they need do in exchange is make the advertising look similar to the surrounding editorial matter. “Can we label it as advertising?” one publisher asks.
“You can label it ‘sponsored content,'” the devil replies.
“And it will be worthy?” chimes in another publisher.
“Oh yes,” says the devil. “My clients don’t benefit if people don’t read the stuff.”
“But won’t this confuse our readers,” ventures another publisher, “and even deceive them into reading brand propaganda when they’re expecting arms-length journalism?”
The devil has an answer for that, too. “I repeat: the rates are higher than for the regular display ads that nobody ever looks at. What say we put this to a vote?”
One by one the publishers raise their hands. The Economist. Forbes. The Atlantic. The Huffington Post. The Washington Post. Time Inc. The New York Times. And, most recently, Yahoo. Nine people sit at the table, and eight hands eventually are raised. Only one, the strange fellow with the odd garments and a thick German accent, fails to accept the devil’s offer.
“And you, sir,” says the prince of darkness. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Faust,” answers the holdout.
“And may I ask why you did not accept my bargain, Mr Faust?”
The odd fellow nods. “Sure,” he says to the devil. “To tell you the truth, I don’t see much of an upside.”
And that is the story of native advertising, the latest gimmick for infusing a dying old industry (and a sickly new one) with desperately needed cash. It’s a neat trick – and, if you’ll permit me to switch metaphors, I use that term advisedly. Check the lobbies of these venerable journalistic institutions; the flocked wallpaper and player pianos should be going up any day. This is the decor of desperation.
Actually, these publications – and others rushing to drop their knickers – are embracing nothing particularly new. What they used to call “advertorials” have been around since time immemorial, with such brands as Outlet for Design Furniture and Heat Surge space heaters and China buying ad newspaper space to run content that somewhat resembles the actual surrounding news articles.
The key word here is “somewhat.” Basic publishing ethics dictate that the fake articles be printed in clearly different type fonts and column widths, be enclosed by borderlines and be identified prominently as advertising. By contrast, as native advertising is most often practiced – and as the Federal Trade Commission has very much noticed – publishers allow their advertisers to run content strikingly similar in look and style to the real editorial. The label “advertising” is almost never applied. Instead they use confusing wiggle words like “sponsored content” or, even more obscurely, “from around the web”. The result is not merely deceiving to readers, it bespeaks a conspiracy of deception among publishers, advertisers and their agencies.
All involved rationalize the polluting of media in three ways:
1) Experts at brands can often offer interesting, valuable content every bit as illuminating as that produced by independent journalists
2) Ordinary online display advertising doesn’t work, because nobody ever clicks on it, or even much notices it.
3) The news media are in an existential crisis. The digital revolution has destroyed their business model and desperately need new revenue streams. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no picky eaters in a famine.
All this is absolutely true. However:
1) If brands are so confident about the quality of their “content,” why don’t they proudly slap their name on it instead of camouflaging it to look like third-party mediated editorial?
2) There is no justification for misleading readers, least of all ad efficacy. At stake is the trust earned by the publication over its entire lifespan. If that precious resource is mined and sold, like West Virginia coal (hey! a third metaphor!) it will inevitably be depleted, leaving only a scarred wasteland.
3) Under the most optimistic scenario, the money so unchastely earned will be far too little to save anyone.
Selling its soul buys a sinking newspaper precious little time.
That’s why the Faust of the joke declines to participate. He knows that if he’s going to barter his dignity, reputation and trust, there better be more in it for him than a few coins to stuff his purse. Call him when the deal offers something the publishers, despite their moral corruption, have consigned themselves never to attain: everlasting life.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010