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Posted by on Feb 3, 2014 | 2 comments

12 Articles on Native Advertising, and One Sad Song

the pros and cons of native advertising


This didn’t start off as a post on the many different perspectives on native advertising; my intention was simply to feature the always interesting, insightful and blessedly reasonable Lou Hoffman as the subject of this month’s #SocialSong (please see last month’s post for an explanation of the new format for what was formerly called #SocialSong Saturday).  However, in following Lou more closely this month, I was particularly taken by his comments on the promise and perils of native advertising, especially within the context of a torrent of other commentary – and even potential regulatory activity – swirling about sponsored content or native advertising or whatever you prefer to call it.

Pros and cons (pros as cons?) of native advertising

As a result, I decided to do two things

  1. Research, and offer up, a variety of articles on the pros and cons of native advertising
  2. Respond to my own rather emotional reaction to the topic in my favorite fashion – with a song

You’ll find the list of articles at the end of this post, populated by the likes of

  • Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks, who featured  a series on brand journalism last week, including a positive post on native advertising
  • Ryan Skinner of Forrester, who speaks of the phenomenon as being “a tragedy of the commons”
  • The Columbia Journalism Review, which provides a balanced perspective, reaching back more than half a century, and gives some kudos to the latest journalistic giant to enter the fray
  • Bob Garfield of NPR’s On the Media, who seems less concerned with balanced argument than sounding an urgent alarm, including the warning that publishers trafficking in native ads “…will, in a matter of years, destroy the media industry one boatload of shit at a time.”

A sad song of relationships that aren’t quite what they seem

Now back to that song.  As I read Hoffman’s post “The Wall Street Journal Blends Native Advertising with Journalism,” I couldn’t help feeling a familiar sadness when I read his take (shared in other’s writings, too):

“When does ‘well integrated into the visual design and content feel of a publisher’s site’ morph into fooling readers to think they’re reading journalism? It’s a classic Catch 22. The better you integrate native advertising into journalism (non-interruptive), the more the line blurs between the two and fools the reader. And I’ve never seen a brand study that showed that fooling the target audience cultivates loyalty and repeat ‘buys.’”

Now, compound that concern of fooling the reader with research from David Franklyn of the University of San Francisco School of Law that finds 35% of readers can’t distinguish editorial from sponsored content, 50% don’t know what “sponsored” means… and that a third simply don’t care.

“Native ads aren’t inherently worse than regular ads” – but the temptation is there
It was that last bit that really got me.  Many of us don’t even care if we’re being fooled or not.  Which brings me to the “familiar sadness” I note above – the sadness of wanting to believe something so much that we look past all actualities, focus on our hope, and leave ourselves open to both self-disappointment and, even more likely, exploitation. While I agree with the Columbia Journalism Review’s position that “native ads aren’t inherently worse than regular ads. It’s all about disclosure…” experience tells me that, given the human impulse toward self interest, brands are likely to be satisfied with the kind of ill-disclosed native ads that will, if not intentionally deceive consumers, end up taking advantage of this weakness and thereby eventually undermine consumer trust.

All of this put me in mind of my own longings as a much younger man, the desire to know and be known, a yearning so inbred and strong that I was usually willing to overlook actualities and simply project my hopes upon another person.  At best, it left me unfulfilled, because I wasn’t dealing in reality; at worst, it left me vulnerable to exploitation, as I was acting like a sap. I was lucky enough that no would-be paramour ever tried to deceive me – I was more a victim of the self-deception that comes from wanting to believe what I wanted to believe, rather than what was before my eyes. Hence, the seeds of the song and video you see here.

So it is with us as consumers… we are so easy to deceive because we so want to believe. With native advertising, brands run the risk of violating consumer trust – and undermining core relationships – by not being sufficiently, even assertively, transparent.

Proponents point to the disclosures that go with most native ads as protection from confusion or deception, but they are typically too subtle to communicate the nature of the sponsorship (and some, like Forbes BrandVoice, don’t put the full disclosure in plain sight, requiring the reader to click through to another page of pop-up to get a full, if still obtuse, explanation).

If you are using native ads as a marketer, what sort of disclaimer do you insist on, if any?  And if you are simply a consumer of content, what level of disclaimer would you expect, in order to maintain credibility?  Please leave your comments below… and be sure to check the following list of varied opinions on the subject.

11 articles for, against or simply about native advertising

For further reading, I recommend this by-no-means-exhaustive list:

The Wall Street Journal Further Blends Native Advertising with Journalism,” by Lou Hoffman

The Catch-22 of Native Advertising,” by Lou Hoffman

Brand Journalism:  How to Use Sponsored Content,” by Gini Dietrich, Spin Sucks

“As Online Ads Look More Like News Articles, FTC Warns on Deception,”  Edward Wyatt, The New York Times

Native Advertising vs. Content Marketing,” by Michael Gerard, Business2Community

 “Defining and Managing the Native Advertising Landscape,” by Rebecca Leib, Altimeter Group

Will Native Advertising Be A Tragedy of the Commons?” by Ryan Skinner, Forrester

Arguments Fly During FTC Workshop on Native Advertising,” by Alex Kantrowitz
(Includes more of Bob Garfield;s colorful commentary.)

A Guide to Native Advertising’s Legal Issues,” by Fernando Bohorquez, Jr., iMedia Connection

Here’s why ‘native ads’ are a very bad idea…”  Tom Foremski, ZDNet

Sponsored Content: An Ethical Framework,” by Richard Edelman, Edelman blog

“Native Advertsing: Trust for Sale,” by Doug Kessler, with an excellent example from/of The Guardian


  1. Excellent post and round-up of posts out there.
    This is a really important issue but – despite all the coverage – I don’t think it’s being discussed in the right way.

    • Thanks Doug… I see and hear too much eagerness to make money all around – among brands, agencies, publications – for it to receive much serious discussion. And per your point, how would we now be able to tell if it is a serious, or simply sponsored, discussion at any rate? The sad part is that I believe marketers can successfully deliver content via clearly marked paid placement… but then, they’d have to take a less expedient, more truly transparent route, not only with the labeling of the content but with their approach to it (like being brave enough to present real pros and cons surrounding their own offerings)

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