There’s a debate raging in journalistic circles about a controversial innovation in marketing: Native advertising a.k.a. advertorials a.k.a. sponsored content a.k.a. the worst thing to happen to journalism ever, according to many journalists.
As a former print journalist, I can completely sympathize and relate to the discomfort with native advertising. Lately, some ads are masked as journalistic content when transparency in all media should be paramount. The practice goes against some of the profession’s most fundamental principles, chiefly the supposed firewall between editorial and sales. That firewall never really existed for most journalists outside of J-school textbooks; in practice it tends to be more of a guiding principle at best. In an internet age, distinguishing between journalistic and sponsored content will become increasingly challenging and it’s time to outline some new guidelines.
Sponsored content also calls into question the “objectivity” of a news item, but to quote my former editor yelling at a naïve reporter, “there’s no such thing as objective journalism and there never was, you idiot!” Let’s stop pretending journalists are objective. The selection of material for every piece of journalism and what pieces find their way into newspapers are highly subjective processes, not to mention the fact that journalists themselves have prejudices – they’re only human (in most cases). Even in my previous career as a news reporter, it would have been unfathomable to describe my work as objective; doing so would have been deceptive, really.
Can we truly adopt a prohibitionary attitude toward native advertising when journalists write things like this or this without being paid directly by advertisers? Dogmatic pieces of journalism, I would argue, create less value for the modern media consumer than balanced pieces of marketing.
HBO’s John Oliver recently launched a hilarious and scathing attack on native advertising, calling it deceitful (which it can be), as “the consumer cannot tell the difference…because it’s supposed to blend in.”
Oliver’s critique was brilliant, though at times bordering on self-righteous. He and others who are panicking over native advertising need to adjust their expectations to fit new realities. The openness of the internet benefits independent content-providers, but it will also increasingly benefit larger media and marketing companies (Oliver admits that his own program was promoted on BuzzFeed, a leader in native advertising); all will be forced to compete in this relatively accessible and unregulated marketplace.
If you’re concerned about the sanctity of news, I regret to inform you that you’re too late. The industry is more preoccupied with its survival than maintaining the façade of fairness in an internet age where there is no fairness in which pieces of content receive the most clicks. Native advertising is making a comeback because attempts to monetize journalistic content online have been failing more often than succeeding (take down your paywalls; millennials will not pay for news stories they can read for free), and it’s become infinitely more sophisticated than the Camel News Caravan. Slipping ad copy into works of journalism is literally the last place to hide these commercial messages from cynical, perceptive and hurried consumers (until Google beams them directly into our retinas, and that’s at leastthree years away).
As content strategist Dan Levy wrote recently, there are exciting new opportunities for journalists and marketers to evolve by learning more from each other, rather than maintaining the traditional confrontational relationship (having studied both journalism and marketing, helping to redefine that relationship has long been a professional goal of mine). Journalists could better promote their work with new media and learn to write for specific audiences, while marketers could refine their messages and set tougher, more intellectually-rigorous standards when crafting the messages.
With the inevitable convergence of editorial and sales (some media companies already have hybrid departments called things like “media creativity”), it should then become a question of outlining standards to broadcast all content honestly and responsibly. At Provocateur, clients are strongly discouraged from paying for coverage but encouraged to enter the media landscape organically with messages that are as balanced, transparent and intellectually honest as possible, without compromising their business interests. In fact, the preceding sentence could loosely be construed as a form of native advertising and that’s OK – assuming readers find this piece to be relatively well-informed, insightful and transparent.
As Oliver noted, “this is all at least partially our fault. A press cannot be free and independent if nobody is willing to pay for it, and it seems nobody is going to.” The “free” social networks and email systems we use throughout the day collect hundreds, if not thousands of dollars’ worth of our personal data every year to help finance their operation. It can only be expected that traditional media organizations will also find ways to profit from internet-savvy consumers looking for services or products with no up-front cost. And selling space traditionally reserved for journalistic content could be the last option left to maintain sales revenue.
The media industry will also have to appeal for more openness from regulators who are even further behind the digital curve; in a surreal turn of events, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decided to strike Netflix’s testimony from hearings on the future of television. That’s unfortunate, considering the Netflix model is, essentially, the future of television. And Netflix is a pioneer in native advertising, which is how many forms of entertainment will have to be financed.
Journalists face a daunting challenge. They must slowly abandon the notion that their content is always and universally more relevant in the eyes of media consumers because…journalism. Concepts of journalistic standards like “objectivity,” or even plagiarism, while the subject of endless debate among media types, are largely lost on the average consumer. To them, content is king; an overused cliché, perhaps, but one which illustrates how much harder journalists will have to work in order to compete in the open, digital marketplace of ideas.
Dan Delmar is the managing partner of Provocateur Communications, a host/commentator with CJAD 800 Montreal and contributor with The National Post.