The un­holy al­liance of ‘na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing’

The Bulletin - - Opinion - DR GAVIN EL­LIS Dr Gavin El­lis is an Auck­land me­dia re­searcher and for­mer ed­i­tor-in-chief of the New Zealand Her­ald

CALL me old-fash­ioned but I think there is some­thing sa­cred about the ed­i­to­rial col­umns of a news­pa­per.

I was brought up to be­lieve in the ex­is­tence of church and state, where the ed­i­to­rial church had a higher call­ing than the dis­tinctly tem­po­ral com­mer­cial side of the news­pa­per.

Like all true believ­ers I had scrip­ture on my side: jour­nal­ism was to be in­de­pen­dent, fair, bal­anced and free of bias – it was un­de­ni­able, ac­cepted wis­dom. It was also all of the things that an ad­ver­tise­ment did not have to be.

So I have to ad­mit that I ap­proach the sub­ject of “spon­sored con­tent” or “na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing” with some pre­con­ceived no­tions.

One of those no­tions is that peo­ple tend to think that if it looks like a news story, reads like a news story and is placed with other news sto­ries, it’s prob­a­bly a news story. That pre­con­cep­tion is the very thing upon which “na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing” hopes to cap­i­talise. In a sim­i­lar way, “spon­sored con­tent” has all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a news story but it is there only be­cause some­one paid for it to be there.

You may be ask­ing: What has changed? For decades news­pa­pers have been run­ning ad­ver­tis­ing sup­ple­ments and ma­te­rial un­der that much maligned “advertorial” ne­ol­o­gism. How­ever, in the case of the for­mer, there has been a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween this rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing ma­te­rial and the news col­umns and the lat­ter has been made dis­tinct from ed­i­to­rial con­tent (dur­ing my own ed­i­tor­ship by re­quir­ing that it did not use ed­i­to­rial fonts and was la­beled top cen­tre).

“Na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing” seeks to re­move distinctions be­tween ad­ver­tis­ing and ed­i­to­rial con­tent to, in the words of one pun­dit, “look more like con­tent you ac­tu­ally want to read.” It had its ge­n­e­sis in the an­ar­chic world of the in­ter­net on sites whose op­er­a­tors ei­ther didn’t know or didn’t care about the dis­tinc­tion be­tween church and state. From there it has mi­grated to the sites of es­tab­lished news or­gan­i­sa­tions and into print. Forbes mag­a­zine pro­motes its online Brand­voice ser­vice that al­lows mar­keters to “use the same plat­form as Forbes writ­ers and con­trib­u­tors” and in March the Wash­ing­ton Post be­gan an online equiv­a­lent called Brand­con­nect. In Au­gust the Wash­ing­ton Post be­gan pitch­ing na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing to print ad­ver­tis­ers.

How­ever, in Jan­uary the ven­er­a­ble mag­a­zine The At­lantic at­tracted wide­spread crit­i­cism for (briefly) car­ry­ing on its web­site a “na­tive ad­ver­tise­ment” pro­mot­ing the Church of Scien­tol­ogy and the Mash­able web­site was in­ves­ti­gated by the US mar­ket­ing in­dus­try watch­dog for a 20-part tech­nol­ogy se­ries that was part of a mar­ket­ing cam­paign for a new com­puter chip. Now the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion has an­nounced a hear­ing into spon­sored con­tent, con­cerned about the lack of clear guide­lines.

In­evitably this part of the world will have to grap­ple with the is­sue that, for now, is gen­er­ally con­fined to clearly iden­ti­fied “spe­cial re­port” sec­tions. The need for clear guide­lines goes with­out say­ing. So, too, does the need for th­ese guide­lines to be read­ily avail­able to read­ers – online AND in print. There is also a need to draw some de­mar­ca­tion lines be­tween church and state.

I am not so naïve as to think that a holier-than-thou at­ti­tude should pre­vail in th­ese days of dire news­pa­per eco­nom­ics. New ways of cre­at­ing rev­enue have to be found and it is point­less be­ing so re­stric­tive that the de­cline be­comes ter­mi­nal. That does not, how­ever, pre­vent us from draw­ing some deep lines in the sand.

No “na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing” should ap­pear as in­di­vid­ual items in the gen­eral news and busi­ness col­umns, in es­tab­lished com­men­tary col­umns, or on the op-ed pages. No “na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing” or “spon­sored con­tent” should ap­pear in ed­i­to­rial col­umns un­less con­trol of the con­tent is in the hands of ed­i­to­rial staff. Any such ma­te­rial must be clearly la­beled (and that in­cludes a pro­hi­bi­tion on grey­ing out) – in a man­ner that leaves the reader in no doubt over the na­ture of the con­tent. A dis­clo­sure state­ment, set­ting out any con­di­tions of pub­li­ca­tion, should ap­pear at the end of the ma­te­rial.

If this ap­pears oner­ous it is the price that needs to be paid in or­der to pre­serve the one thing with­out which any news or­gan­i­sa­tion will die – trust. Read­ers trust us to en­sure that a news story meets all of the ba­sic tenets of jour­nal­ism and, as US news­pa­per­man Pete Hamill put it, if “acts of trust and faith are ab­sent or shrugged off, the news­pa­per usu­ally goes down­scale and keeps go­ing all the way to the bot­tom of the grave.”

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