“9 Things That Have Changed in the Last 20 Years” – a seemingly innocuous listicle that shares its aesthetic with the content churn of most modern websites. With relevant and somewhat amusing examples including boy bands and pizza, its not until number 9 when you see “cell phones” and the latest Motorola promotional shot that your eyes begin to roll.
In our modern world of algorithmic echo chambers and Russian fake-news bots, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms stand trial for enabling the spread of digital social virus called fake news. Perhaps just the latest iteration of a long-running and well earned cyber-anxiety, the potential deception enabled by our new tools of communications have caused most of us to question the future of news media.
There is, however, another symptom illuded to at the start of this essay of the digital news disease to which we should pay attention: native advertising. Zarzosa & Fischbach (2017) define native advertising as ” content that bears a similarity to news, entertainment, featured articles, product reviews, and other content in digital media” (p. 104) despite not being them. By this definition it may be hard to parse native advertising from the fake political news we are all too familiar with due to the generality. The real difference? Native advertising doesn’t necessarily include false information (although they may), just an inescapably biased perspective. Worse yet is that unlike fake news which finds a home on sites that try to pass as legitimate, native advertising is hosted by the most trusted journalism brands on the planet.
Despite these differences, native advertising shares many characteristics with fake news. First is their shared patron: the digital advertising model. Burkhardt (2017) explains that “in a largely unregulated medium [like digital media], supported and driven by advertising, the incentive for good is often outweighed by the incentive to make money”, leading to design decisions that structure algorithms to deceive users. In the case of native advertising, content resembles genuine journalism not despite better intentions, but because of the fundamental design of such content. The very premise of native advertising is to be indistinguishable from real content.
Some have denied the insidious nature of native advertising, like the Native Advertising Institute who believe “the end goal cannot be to sell or promote. The end goal must be to resource, inform and entertain”. Such a statement is complete naivety. For a company to invest financial resources into marketing that does not promote their product, service, or brand would be irresponsible to shareholders, and is ethically impossible. The very act of creating native advertising is the promotion: creating content meant to provide value to readers only to abuse the trust established through sly promotion cannot be formed without a sale in mind.
Apologists of native advertising often point the fingers at consumers. Forbes admits that 75% of publishers are running native ads, and 41% of brands are currently using them, but justifies this by saying that “people don’t click on advertising but they do click on what they consider editorial content”. Readers aversion to advertisement shouldn’t be license to disguise advertisements in order to trick, it should be a sign that advertising models are non-functional in financing journalism, especially when other revenue strategies have been successful for small operations like Patreon crowd funding. If the foundation your industry truly is collapsing, the solution cannot be to move everyone upstairs; the solution is to move.
Zarzosa & Fischbach (2017) highlight the victim blaming attitude of marketing agencies by pointing out that “with the rapid growth of native advertising, there has been an increased interest to enhance the understanding of consumers’ responses to online native ads” (p. 107). Perhaps concessions will have to be made to the blurring line of sponsored content, but to complete ignoring of ethics guidelines demands regulation, not education.
We should especially be concerned with the solution of educating consumers when considering our current starting point. Contently conducted a study comparing consumers’ ability to correctly identify native advertising compared to control articles; the results were very discouraging. Participants misidentified the control as native advertising and identified genuine native advertisements with varying degrees of success. The author puts it plainly in saying that “as much as publishers insist that their native ad labels and disclosures are abundantly clear, it’s apparent that people remain quite confused”.
We should be aware that this confusion benefits the pockets of companies, and they couldn’t care less about our feelings concerning its insidious nature. The Native Advertising Institute argues that “there is a public disdain for camouflaged ads, even though the reality of the marketplace is quite positive”; in this context “positive” really just means profitable. How arrogant must one be to assert that a public’s disdain for advertising is really to their own detriment? Waldrop (2017) explains that in the context of news screening that “Facebook and the rest would much rather live with loose algorithms that yield a lot false negatives—letting junk through—than risk using tight algorithms that yield false positives” due to possible lawsuits. It is clear that in the current state of journalism, the profit-motive is not aligned with the most valuable and consumer oriented practices.
Native advertising is in many ways worse than fake news due to its integration to mainstream media. When Hundley (2017) points out that over 6 million people viewed a fabricated and slanderous story about Hillary Clinton stealing the 2016 election (p. 518), we react with appropriate horror. But when we see a native advertisement published in the same font and column widths as regular articles, we don’t bat an eye. As the Guardian outlines, these practices go against the most basic publishing ethics and should be actively challenged by the public and legislature.
The Conversation and others like the Native Advertising Institute have pointed towards progress in regulation saying “some media and marketing industry bodies have produced updated guidelines to protect consumers”. While these steps are appreciated, self-regulation will simply never be enough. Until the government plays an active role in forcing the obvious differentiation of advertising from journalism, the public will continue to go on confusing the fake articles of native advertising for the real, just like they’ve been doing with fake political news.
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