Don’t you love it when someone takes something old and tries to say it’s brand new? For years, Subaru touted its “hill-holder” clutch as a clever new feature that allowed drivers of its manual transmission vehicles to start off on hills more easily. The truth is, Studebaker invented the hill-holder clutch decades earlier and introduced a model with it—in 1936!
The same thing is happening in the advertising world with “native advertising,” or advertising that is placed alongside editorial content, and has the look and feel of an actual news story. We’ve discussed this before in Trade Secrets back in February 2011 (“The Perils of Self-Serving Content”) and in September 2009 (“Advertorial content: the Frankenstein of print media”). And there are the magic words: “advertorial content.”
Advertorial content is content that, let’s face it, it meant to be mistaken for actual news. Sure, there’s (usually) a disclaimer in small print at the top of the page or screen that reads “SPONSORED CONTENT” or something similar, but there’s a reason that it looks the actual news content it shares space with: marketers know that a certain segment of the population won’t see the disclaimer. Or, the marketers believe that consumers will give more credibility to an advertorial piece than a display ad.
For some reason, internet marketers have decided to embrace advertorial content, but have rechristened it “native advertising,” perhaps to avoid the stigma of the word advertorial. And that reason isn’t hard to guess: money.
Far be it from me to criticize the media for looking for ways to make money. It’s a tough landscape—one in which in the span of two decades, our media have moved largely from a physical space in which the populace expected to pay for content, to a digital one in which the populace expects to get everything for free. And the really bad news is that quality, free content is readily available. One can’t blame media outlets for doing whatever they can to stay afloat.
What’s reassuring is that the more respected outlets have established policies designed to prevent consumers from being fooled by advertorials. Adweek quoted several in its June 2013 article, “Pretty Much Everyone Is Doing Native Ads Now: WSJ, CNN, NBC included.” Said Nina Lawrence, the Wall Street Journal’s vice president of global marketing, ad sales, “We have sponsored streams of content and dedicated content pages that are very clearly identified as sponsored content. We want to avoid any confusion between Wall Street Journal content and a sponsor’s content.” A spokesperson for CNN added, “CNN.com has clear guidelines that distinguish advertising from editorial content, and any sponsored content on our site is clearly denoted as such.”
ESPN’s Senior VP of multimedia sales, Lisa Valentino, agreed with me that native advertising is nothing new. “The term is getting buzz because some startups are doing native ads and trying to make them seem new again,” she said.
The media are confusing enough as they are, with infotainment sites and amateur journalists with few credentials or concern for accuracy sometimes stealing the spotlight from more respectable news sources. Let’s hope that they follow the lead of the “old guard” and provide the necessary disclaimers for their advertorial content before they make an even bigger mess of the media playing field.