This is not ads as we traditionally know them, this is content. Some publications have even taken to calling them advertorial. An advert in editorial. Yes, you heard that right, an advert in editorial. Our only warning signal is a tiny line somewhere on the page to say something like ‘sponsored content’. The wall separating church and state (as the line between editorial content and advertising is referred to) is being whacked with the Miley-style wrecking ball that is native advertising.
In the popular HBO series Mad Men, the advertising industry is retrospectively stripped bare. We got to see the inner workings championing these creative brains. The reason we like Don Draper’s character is that he had the ability to pull on our heart strings when pitching ideas, to relate everyday products to our innermost feelings. In the setting of 1960s New York this is palatable; the nostalgia almost makes us forget the industry they were trail blazing. Make no mistake these people want our money and the modern contemporary are finding new and innovative ways to convince us to spend it.
Native advertising has come about due to the falling success of banner ads. Those annoying things that currently sit along the top of many websites that we avoid clicking on at all costs. But we accept those as a necessary evil, along with page ads in magazines. We all know that print journalism is in decline, people don’t buy their media like they used to. So understandably we know that advertisement is key to help fund publications.
Most of us get our news online these days. Buzzfeed has become a huge success and we often find ourselves retweeting, sharing it’s articles. ‘Going viral’ is a phrase thrown around a lot especially in the industry I work in. To go viral is to succeed, to reach as many people as possible. Generating the high click counts is sometimes seen as more important than the content itself. Buzzfeed has these ideals down, in the viral work they are winning. CEO Johan Peretti is proud of the relationship he has with sponsored content “100% of Buzzfeed’s revenue comes from branded content. A lot of partners are marketers or major brands”.
Advertising certainly isn’t what it used to be in the Mad Men days, it has in itself become a dirty word. The “creative media company” is the rebranded ad agency. These guys will optimise your money earning potential with brave bold ideas. Writing in the Guardian this March, Alex Attinger (MD of performance marketing company, Digitalbox) writes:
“Rather than to create clear delineation between ads and editorial content, native advertisement seeks to blend both into a coherent entity where the relevancy of the ads and editorial is seamless.”
Now here’s where I have a problem. If the transition is seamless then that alludes to us not recognising what we’re reading. In fact, the IAB reported that less than half of visitors to new sites can’t tell if what they’re reading is advertising. That makes me feel really uncomfortable: not only are ad companies no longer calling themselves ad companies but they are also advertising under the camouflage of editorial content. Ready in waiting to spin our media into whichever agenda enables them to gain the highest amount of revenue.
On John Oliver’s US show, The Week Last Week, he likens the separation of church and state to guacamole and twizzlers. The two just do not mix. Traditionally there has always been a wall, advertising was obvious and we could choose to ignore it if we wanted to. On the other side of the Atlantic publications like New York Times have run native advertising to publicise TV shows and Time Inc even has its own in-house native advertising team.
In last week’s Stylist magazine I found 3 pieces of such advertising. ‘Room for Improvement’ was one of them, a full page advertorial written by Stylist’s creative solutions manager. She tells us about her own eclectic home amongst the strategically placed items from the home-ware company, Not On the High Street. These aren’t offensive or aggressive pieces of advertising and as this is a free publication so they have to make their money from advertising. But the next time I read an article by her I will remember that she was paid to encourage us to buy the products she spoke about.
Journalists differ from celebrity endorsements because we trust them to bring us our news. Whilst native advertising in light features on home ware or entertainment might be more annoying than misleading it still doesn’t make it ok. We get our news from so many different places now the influence of popular sites and magazines is more powerful than ever. With less and less of us turning to the mainstream to get our news, how can we know if we can trust what we’re reading. Products have an agenda; there is no impartiality when someone is trying to control a brand to make money. I trust reviews not endorsements.
But here’s where we can make the difference, call it out on your social media. If you think advertising has crossed a line into your content tweet it, post it, instagram it. Social networks are ours; they were created for us to communicate with each other not for businesses to sell us their products. That’s the thing about business, they are only winning if we’re buying into it.
I agree with John Oliver, I don’t want guacamole flavoured twizzlers.