How John Oliver got native advertising wrong

John Oliver’s slamming of native advertising took the already heated debate to a new level. If you have not seen it you really should – it’s hilarious and he makes some very good points. But sadly most of his conclusions are wrong.

Oliver’s take did not really advance the debate any further, since he was basically reiterating what opponents of native advertising have been saying for a long while. It’s deceiving the readers, it’s breaking down the barrier between “church and state”, i.e the newsroom and the business side of a media outlet. And, most importantly, Oliver’s rant did not offer any solutions. Which is perfectly all right, it’s not his job to solve the problems of the media industry or its advertising counterpart.

Let’s look elsewhere then. In a recent post Doug Kessler argues that “Native advertising’s apologists miss the point”. Doug takes a strong stand again native advertising, and states that those in favor of it rely on four arguments:

“Native Content is always clearly sign-posted”. Doug dismisses this because the signposts are too small or non-existent. That’s very true, and one thing that can actually be done to improve the quality of native advertising.

“Native Content can be just as valuable – even more valuable – than editorial.” If this is true, argues Doug, why does people have to be tricked into reading it? But are they really? In a study from IAB/Edelman one of the key take aways is that “..users are highly receptive to in-feed sponsored content if it is relevant, authoritative and trustworthy.” That’s hardly the statement of someone who has been deceived.

The counter-argument is that the content is not impartial, that it always tries to sell something. But is there really such a thing as an impartial view?

This is very close to the third point. According to Doug those in favor of content advertising argues that “Editorial always had an agenda and always sold stuff.” He grudgingly admits this is true, but then dismisses it by calling it dangerous and cynical. The thing is, though, that it can’t be dismissed that easily. Being biased is not something exclusive to Fox News, it is true of every media outlet in every part of the world. It’s often referred to as having a take, or an angle, or a style, and will spell out a stance the outlet has towards politics, society, business etc. A media outlet can’t survive without having one, neither in the newsroom nor on the business side. Both the readership and the advertisers rely on it. In this sense native advertising doesn’t really change anything.

“The reader isn’t stupid: people know advertising when they see it.” Again Doug asks why it has to be disguised then? And goes on to ask “Won’t they just get angry once they figure out that the fair and balanced story about America’s energy future was bought and paid for by Chevron?”, referring to a recent piece in the New York Times.The thing is, though, that newsrooms can’t cover every story, and a lot of journalists steer very clear of covering success stories from companies. But that doesn’t mean that those stories don’t deserve to be told. To quote the Edelman/IAB report again: “The best in-feed sponsored content tells a story and fulfills the human need for a compelling narrative.” And the best place to do that is of course in a context where people expect to find stories.

Which brings me to an important point. The IAB/Edelman report states that “Well done sponsored content can enhance the credibility of the site and the site’s credibly can enhance the perceived credibility of the in-feed sponsored content.” In other words, good branded stories can actually bring an advantage to the outlet, just as they benefit the brand behind them.

In a piece here on LinkedIn Joe Pulizzi suggested three solutions to the problems of native advertising; 1. Fix the editorial process, e.g have the content approved by the editorial staff while brands stopped submitting appaling content. 2. Fix the business model – by not relying solely on ad revenue. 3. Brands developing “rent-to-own” strategies, i.e purchasing ad space on media outlets and directing them to their own media platforms. I would really like to hear Joe develop the last one, which looks like a very interesting model.

To me, the key point in Joe’s piece is the second. Because we would not have this interest in native advertising unless it solved some very real problems – Media outlets can’t rely on traditional revenue streams, brands are getting less and less out of traditional advertising and the general public are increasingly unwilling to pay for their media consumption. But “nearly 9 in 10 (86%) consumers feel that online advertising is necessary to receive free content online” and “additionally, 60% of consumers are more open to online ads that tell a story than ones that simply sell a product.” (Edelman/IAB).

As far as brands are concerned native advertising also makes it easier to achieve convergence between owned and bought media, and to some degree earned media, which is increasingly important. In fact, it is probably one of the key considerations, and I am surprised that it is not mentioned more often in the native advertising debate.

One final point. In his piece John Oliver paints a picture of perfect, unbiased media outlets that serve objective journalism at all times and now are being sullied by evil marketers or their own business departments. It was never thus. And what brought on native advertising was our own media consumption and how it has changed in recent years. David Armano has a great take on this. Seth Godin once said that content marketing was the only kind of marketing left. To paraphrase that, maybe native advertising is the only kind of advertising that’s left.

This was originally posted on LinkedIn in July, 2014

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