Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 9.48.23 PM.png

A look at the ethically complex world of native advertising

Journalism’s new revenue saviour may come at the cost of long-held ethical standards. [[{“fid”:”4405″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”407″,”width”:”611″,”style”:”width: 399px; height: 266px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Angela Mombourquette It probably happens all the time and you don’t even know it. An intriguing story from the news website Mashable flashes through your social feed: “10 futuristic gadgets for…

Journalism’s new revenue saviour may come at the cost of long-held ethical standards.

[[{“fid”:”4405″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”407″,”width”:”611″,”style”:”width: 399px; height: 266px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Angela Mombourquette

It probably happens all the time and you don’t even know it. An intriguing story from the news website Mashable flashes through your social feed: “10 futuristic gadgets for the early adopter.” You tap the link. You read the article. Neat

It looks like any other story. Curious, maybe you click on the author’s byline, and learn she is a “Branded Content” intern. Wait—what is that? You haven’t seen anything to indicate this story is anything out of the ordinary. But if you navigate far enough back, to the Mashable home page, you might notice a tiny little caption under the story’s image link: “Presented by Bose.” 

You’ve just read a native advertisement. And the fact that you didn’t know you were reading an advertisement masked as a story raises a lot of questions with no simple answers. 


Heavy rotation

Native advertising is a term that’s in heavy rotation these days. But what is it? The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., said native advertising, in the simplest terms, “is a publisher placing paid advertising content, written either in collaboration with the advertiser or directly by the advertiser, on its site in such a way that it mimics editorial content.” Most definitions come down to more or less the same thing: it’s advertising that is designed to look and feel like editorial copy. It also happens outside the print and online worlds in the form of product placements, podcast shoutouts and even entire TV channels, but more and more, readers are coming into contact with it online. 

Mathew Ingram, senior writer at Fortune magazine and former writer at GigaOm, rightly points out that native advertising isn’t new. “Advertorial was what the media industry used to call it, and it appeared in newspapers and magazines for decades,” he said. So why, in 2015, is native advertising such a hot topic?  

Call it a survival tactic. It’s no secret that the Internet has changed the way journalists do business, particularly in relation to advertising. “Traditional banner display advertising is just not working, and there’s a whole bunch of reasons for that,” said Ingram. “Google and its automated and surf related ads, and Facebook and similar types of ads, have pushed down the price of advertising to the point where traditional display ads are almost worthless.” 

That’s left a gaping hole on the revenue side of many journalism outlets’ balance sheets, and that in turn has led to a seismic shift in some publishers’ willingness to adopt a native advertising strategy.


Not your old-school advertorials

And the approach is strategic. Native advertising is becoming something of a sophisticated art—or science, if you will. The lexicon isn’t standardized among publishers, advertisers or the middlemen, known as “content marketers.”  The American Press Institute has broken so-called “sponsored content” down into a few basic business models. They include:

  • Underwriting model. “The brand sponsors content attached to normal reporting, or something that the publisher was creating anyway,” notes the API. These items are sometimes referred to as sponsored content. Heres an example of an article sponsored, but not created, by Ford, via The Verge. The key ethical issue with this kind of content is transparency. Does the audience know it’s reading sponsored content? Lauren Drell, Mashable’s “Branded Content Editor,” declined to be interviewed for this story after consulting with the media team at Mashable. 
  • Agency model. In this case, according to the API, “A publisher employs specialized writers and editors to help create custom content in partnership with a brand.” This is sometimes referred to as “branded” or “promoted” content. Advertisers often use these sorts of posts to underwrite content that is related to (but not directly about) their products and may be of interest to their customers, as with BuzzFeed’s “An Ode to Chocolate,” which was underwritten by Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy. These types of ads raise questions about editorial independence, given that advertisers have significant input and final say over the content and that this editorial oversight may not always be clear to readers.
  • Platform model. “A publisher provides a dedicated space for brands to publish their own messages in their own name. The publisher has little direct involvement in the content,” notes the API. This is the closest to the old “advertorial” model. Forbes BrandVoice, for example, allows marketers to post their own content. It’s a wholesale sellout of the publisher’s editorial stream, but on the other hand, it’s often quite clearly disclosed, with the aid of bylines and visual identifiers, that the content is coming directly from an advertiser. 

Other media analysts break native ad types down according to which platform the content is shared on, or use completely different labels. To complicate things further, the U.S. Interactive Advertising Bureau released its Native Advertising Playbook in 2013, which features 12 pages devoted to defining different types of native advertising.


Credibility and trust

The discussion around native advertising always comes down to issues of credibility and trust. But there’s conflicting evidence as to whether publishers risk losing the trust of their readers when they employ native advertising. A study that appeared in the Spring 2104 edition of #ISOJ, the Official Research Journal of the International Symposium on Online Journalism, looked at the effects that “both age and the presence of native advertisements have on credibility judgments toward a news website.” The study produced results that “suggest that the presence of native advertising had no significant effect on the viewer’s perception of credibility.”  Another study, conducted in the U.S. by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and market research firm Edelman Berland, looked at how online news users feel about sponsored content. It found that sponsored content “worked best” when the content was relevant (closely matched in style and quality to the publisher’s own editorial content), when it shared expertise, but didn’t “sell”, and when brands and publishers were transparent. 

However, there may be a gap in the public’s understanding of what native advertising is and what it looks like. Contently, a New York company that “helps connect freelance writers with publishers, generally brands, that would like to feature content on their websites,” conducted its own study and found that most readers did not have a clear understanding of what the term “sponsored content” meant and that “two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand; 54 per cent of readers don’t trust sponsored content; [and] 59 per cent of readers believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles sponsored by a brand.”


Setting Standards

So muddy are the ethical waters around native advertising that in late 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission held a workshop to examine the issues around it. According to AdWeek, the workshop “raised more questions than it answered,” noting that the sole consensus reached was that “transparency and disclosure are important, but finding a single solution (whether it be through labels, or color, borders or other treatment) seemed elusive.” 

“I wish native advertising did not have to be,” said media ethicist, author and educator Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward. “But it exists, so it’s better for us to write about it, think about it, and set some public standards.” 

Certainly the standards haven’t caught up to the practice. The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards said, “No advertisement shall be presented in a format or style that conceals its commercial intent,” but there’s nothing specific to native advertising. The Canadian Marketing Association’s Code of Ethics states that “Marketers must not employ presentations likely to mislead the average consumer or businesse [sic] that the presentation is news, information, public service or entertainment programming.” But again, there are no specific guidelines with respect to print or digital publications.

The onus, then, is on the publishers to be clear about the nature of the content they present. And herein lies the problem. Many (but certainly not all) publishers have created separate in-house advertising teams to ensure the traditional separation of “church and state”—advertising and editorial. BuzzFeed, for example, has designed its own set of ethical guidelines which note that: “BuzzFeed relies deeply on the trust of our readers that we are bringing them accurate reporting, great entertainment, and useful service — and so we maintain a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content. The work of reporters, writers, and editors is entirely independent of our ad salespeople and their clients.” Experts disagree on whether BuzzFeed is sufficiently transparent. Mathew Ingram thinks BuzzFeed does a pretty good job, while TechCrunch’s Josh Constine said, “At their core, I believe these ads are designed to deceive us.”

And it’s not just publishers who are getting in on the “ethical guidelines” ground floor. Contently has designed a set of ethical guidelines, using a journalism ethics model. “Brands default to selling, so I think these ethical guidelines make it simple for us to say, ‘These are the rules. If you don’t follow these, what you’re doing is not going to be effective anyway,’” said Contently’s vice president of content, Sam Slaughter. 

Ward is skeptical about self-imposed ethical codes. “If someone said, ‘I have my own set of norms for journalism’ my reply is, ‘Well that’s very nice; everyone has their own code…Now tell me, do they actually follow any public justification for the way we do media in this society in the first place?’”

He also notes that there’s more to good content creation than just transparency. “There’s good methodology in collecting the information, there are all kinds of norms for judging whether the story is good and accurate and verifiable — so we also need the methodological norms of good journalism. I don’t want us to get to a place in society where everything is just about equal and we can’t distinguish one piece of information from another.”

The famous rant

If you haven’t seen it, now’s a good time to watch the rant about native advertising delivered by John Oliver, the late-night talk show host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight.  

Angela Mombourquette is a Halifax writer, editor and web publisher, and a recent graduate of the Master of Journalism program at the University of King’s college. You can read more of her work at