Web-era advertorials’ sinister effect on editorial content

BBC’s Robert Peston isn’t only one worried about blurred lines between ads and editorial

Illustration: Thinkstock

Illustration: Thinkstock

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 01:20

Native advertising, according to Twitter, is “a more seamless and less intrusive ad experience for users”, which certainly sounds lovely. That’s why it is “excited” to have picked up a native advertising outfit called Namo Media. Through this acquisition and their purchase of another firm, MoPub, Twitter wants to help bring “the best native ads platform” to app developers and publishers. For web and app users, that means more native ads.

Native advertising is jargon for the web-era equivalent of print advertorials. Native ads show up in what are usually the editorial content areas of web pages or apps. They mirror, to various degrees, the format and appearance of that editorial content in a bid to borrow some of its authority and independence.

Not everyone is a fan of the disguise. Native advertising, according to BBC News economics editor Robert Peston, is a “terrible Orwellian Newspeak phrase for ads that look like impartial editorial”. Native ads, as he defined them in a blunt lecture last week, could be articles or videos that appear on a news site but are produced by a brand, or they could be articles or videos about a brand that are produced by the journalists of a news organisation but are sponsored by that brand. (The difference between the two types as outlined is either important or semantic, depending on who you ask.)

Native ads will be labelled something like “sponsored content”, he noted. “But it is very easy to miss this signposting when the article simply pops up in the middle of a run of stories on a website. As a reader, you have to be on your guard to distinguish the native ads from the proper journalism. And many of us may well be in too much of a rush most of the time when online to notice the distinction. Which is, I fear, pernicious.”

Journalists, including those employed by for-profit companies rather than the BBC, tend to be protective of things like editorial control. They fight to have native ads placed not “in the middle of a run of stories” but in some dead-end corner. Battles are waged over which fonts are acceptable and which are too close to the “proper journalism” fonts for comfort.

But while journalists might be expected to dislike native ads, they are not the only ones who do. “I think it’s trying to hoodwink the reader,” says Ciarán Walsh, founder of digital ad start-up Sweatshop Media and co-owner of the Le Cool franchise in Ireland. “It’s not even a new idea,” he told The Irish Times. “It just feels like smoke and mirrors. It has become buzzwordy, but it is advertorial at the end of the day.”

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