Native advertising and guilt by association

3 minute read

In the last year, I have repeatedly been offered the opportunity to contribute to marketing campaigns produced by the content marketing firm Mediaplanet. Following the first offer, I checked out what these campaigns look like. After all, a few of my colleagues encouraged me to use this opportunity to “get out there.” I discovered these marketing campaigns are thematic newspaper supplements; essentially a newspaper within a newspaper. I also saw that I would be in good company if I did contribute, as politicians, business leaders, and academics have participated in Mediaplanet’s campaigns in the past. After some contemplation, I found that while legitimate arguments can be made for taking such an opportunity, I still had some personal concerns, which I outline below.

David Ogilvy, described as an inspiration for the hit TV series “Mad Men” about a 1960s New York ad agency, realized that adding apparent value to an advertisement increased sales. A much cited example is his 1951 “Guinness Guide to Oysters,” one of a series of advertisements for Guinness Beer doubling as informational placards about, among others, oysters, cheeses, birds, and steaks. This apparent addition of value is one of the defining characteristics of content marketing.

As newspapers increasingly suffer losses in subscriptions and income from traditional advertisements, they turn to alternative sources of revenue they might have previously considered unsavory. One example is “native advertisement,” a tool for content marketing. Rather than injecting value into a single recognizable advertisement (a la “Guinness Guide to Oysters”), in native advertisement, carefully curated editorial content is placed among advertisements, with the mix making up an advertisement campaign.

The editorial content in native advertisement is chosen to maximize consumer interest, and is often independent of any particular product or service. Editorial pieces can be penned by industry experts, academic scholars and freelance journalists, adding credibility to campaign contents. The interleaved advertisements include advertorials, promotional content designed to mimic the look and prose style of editorial content. Sometimes, the only signal that content is an advertorial rather than editorial content is the lack of an author byline. The advertisements and the editorial content mix is then formatted to resemble regular newspaper content and placed as a single advertisement in a newspaper, often spanning multiple pages. This “paper within the paper” approach further blurs the lines between campaign material and the rest of the paper.

Unsurprisingly, many consumers of media, including readers of newspapers, have a hard time distinguishing regular content from native advertising. For example, in 2016 The Norwegian Press Complaints Commission admonished the prominent Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten for failing to adequately mark sponsored content. The sponsored content in question was a native advertising marketing campaign entitled “Patient safety” created by Mediaplanet.

Critics point out that native advertising blurs the line between advertising and journalism with potentially serious consequences for the credibility of media. Loss of credibility in turn undermines the societal function the media has as a watchdog. A tenet of this criticism is that advertisement is freely bought and sold, and thus cannot credibly serve as a tool for public oversight.

Writing newspaper articles is a time-honored public service academics provide on a voluntary basis. Here we act as domain experts, and traditionally, as independent critics of society around us. Arguably, with looming global concerns such as climate change this public service is needed. Controversially, funding for universities and their academic staff is increasingly coupled with perceived return on investment. One way to suggest value is to be visible. It is therefore understandable that we as academics accept opportunities to write editorial content for use in native advertisements placed in newspapers. We might be tempted to think that it makes little enough difference, since we would be writing the exact same thing had it been commissioned directly by the newspaper. However, as educators and researchers we are completely dependent on trust. Trust that we obtain and present knowledge in an honest way, with assumptions and goals clearly stated. This all-important trust is afforded by both our colleagues and the public, and is difficult to regain once lost.

In light of the above, I declined the offers. I could not reconcile a communications opportunity I perceived as based largely on deception with my profession’s complete dependence on trust. Furthermore, I chose not to endorse a practice that I think is likely to further damage the “non-fake” outlets of news, analyses, and commentary so vital for the well-being of democracy. Instead, I bought a newspaper subscription.