Getting restless over native advertising

OK, we understand that news organizations need the money, but can’t they call this stuff something else?

Paul Schiraldi/Netflix/AP
'Orange Is the New Black' stars Taylor Schilling (l.) and Uzo Aduba (r.).

It’s a lovely time of year in Boston, when, just walking down the street, one can enjoy the sight and the fragrance of the (finally) blossoming trees.

I picked up another fragrance the other day though: a strong whiff of euphemism.

Marketplace, the public radio business show, had a report on “branded news,” those wannabe “news” articles that pop up when you’re looking for something else. All sorts of news organizations are looking to such “content” to help pay the bills, Marketplace reported.

The fundamentals of the story were familiar: the challenge of paying for quality journalism in an age when “the information wants to be free.” What I learned from it was the industry term for this stuff: native advertising.

Does that mean that obvious advertising somehow has “immigrant” status? (And maybe a path to citizenship, but maybe not?) The advertising software firm Sharethrough gives this “Official Definition” of native advertising: “a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.”

Sharethrough adds: “Native ads match the visual design of the experience they live within, and look and feel like natural content.” 

In other words, these ads fit right in, and “consumers” (readers) may not realize what they are. Hmm. During my reporting career, I don’t remember ever promising my editors I’d file 700 words of “natural content” by 1 o’clock.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned that publishers will be held responsible for misleading ad content. Hitherto the agency has regarded publishers simply as distribution channels for advertising. “But when the publisher is creating the content, they’re more involved in the process, and that creates some potential liability,” Mary Engle, associate director of advertising practices at the FTC, told an industry conference in New York earlier this month.

She may have had in mind a New York Times piece from last summer. As Rich Kane reported in Editor & Publisher in January, it appeared to be an in-depth piece on the incarceration of women. In reality, though, it was an elaborate “native ad” meant to stoke interest in the second season of the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

The Times pushed back against the accusation of deception, noting the presence of the Netflix logo and a disclaimer.

Be that as it may, I suggest another term: camouflage copy. It gets more honestly at what these “ads” are supposed to do: blend in unnoticed.

“Separation of church and state” is the journalist’s term for this issue. Comedian John Oliver, though, has reframed it as “the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers,” quipping, “Separately they’re good, but if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.”

The appeal to publishers, and maybe even to consumers, is understandable. But if they have to run this stuff, can we have a more honest name for it?

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