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Q: What’s the problem with native advertising? Should news outlets limit this content?

A:

One of the biggest challenges news consumers face today is distinguishing news from other media that does not embody journalism’s three defining attributes: Verification, independence and accountability. Thanks to native advertising, the line between news and advertising has never been more blurred. By design, native ads look just like news stories, blending in seamlessly with editorial content. And therein lies the problem.

Nearly all consumers are easily and consistently duped by native ads, according to research by Boston University Professor Michelle Amazeen. In her study, she showed 738 participants a Bank of America native ad seen below called “America’s Smartphone Obsession Extends to Mobile Banking,” which included a disclosure at the end identifying it as an ad. Despite this label, more than 9 in 10 people thought they were reading a news article with unbiased and vetted information.

Credit: GoUpstate.com

Old school journalists (like me) are wary of native ads because they undermine the public’s already wavering trust in the news media. When Amazeen disclosed that the Bank of America article was actually an ad, participants reacted negatively and blamed the news media for spreading fake news. “Trust in media is at an all-time low,” said Amazeen in a Phys.org article. “I’m not suggesting it’s only from native advertising, but I think it’s a contributing factor.”

Also not a fan of this paid content, John Oliver, who devoted an entire segment of his show Last Week Tonight to bashing these ads. “Native ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except it’s more like raisins in a cookie because no one f**cking wants them there,” said Oliver.

Advertising firms and the business side of many news sites would disagree with that last part. Native advertising is a lucrative business, topping more than $85 billion in 2020, according to ADYOULIKE, a global native advertising platform.  BuzzFeed News was one of the first to profit from ads that look like news, but its success led others to embrace a much-needed new revenue source.

In 2013, the Washington Post set up its WP BrandConnect business to produce sponsored content. Then, in 2016, the New York Times followed with T Brand Studio. As word spread that native ads were more effective and engaging than traditional ads, demand grew, and The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and Politico, to name just a few, set up teams to create paid content. Now nearly all news sites profit from native advertising despite the risks to their credibility and integrity.

And no one is talking about limiting this content. To the contrary, native ad spending is expected to grow to more than $400 billion by 2025. That means it’s going to be even more pervasive and that we had all better learn how to tell the difference between paid and unpaid content.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a bipartisan agency responsible for protecting consumers from deceptive advertising practices, has issued guidelines calling for clear and prominent labels such as “Advertisement,” “Paid Advertisement,” “Ad” or “Sponsored Advertising Content” rather than “Promoted” or “Presented By,” which can be misleading.

And most reputable news sites have produced their own guidelines as well. After the backlash following The Atlantic’s native ad clearly endorsing the Church of Scientology, it came up with a comprehensive set of guidelines that reads in part:

  • The overriding consideration is that The Atlantic must maintain its editorial integrity and the trust of its readers.
  • All advertising content must be clearly distinguishable from editorial content. To that end, The Atlantic will label an advertisement with the word “Advertisement” when, in its opinion, this is necessary to make clear the distinction between editorial material and advertising.
  • As with all advertising, and consistent with the foregoing General Advertising Guidelines, The Atlantic may reject or remove any Sponsor Content at any time that contains false, deceptive, potentially misleading, or illegal content.

That may sound all well and good, but in reality, many of these ”clearly distinguishable” labels are easy to overlook or ignore. That leaves the onus, once again, on news consumers to be vigilant because no one can afford to take any content at face value in this digital age.