Ethics, brain tricks and native advertising

Do you remember the first time you mistakenly clicked on a “native” ad thinking it was content from your favorite website?

How did you feel? Tricked? Disappointed? Like a fool? Did you feel good? Probably not. Did you want to buy the product whose ad led you away from the latest news about upcoming elections or your favorite singer? I know I didn’t. So why is native advertising so popular and what are the ethics behind this often misleading style of ad?

They work psychologically. There you are, innocently looking at a site’s editorial content and then, “Oh! That looks like an interesting related story in the sidebar….” You click and unexpectedly find yourself on some unexpected work-from-home site or weight-loss page that you have zero interest in.

Tricks of the Brain

Native advertising is ads, or even full stories (called advertorials), that are designed in a similar style, font, layout and color scheme as the website on which they are placed.

When we see an ad written in the same font as our favorite site and dressed up with the same colors, is it our fault for not recognizing it as an ad? The publisher and advertiser have clearly teamed up against us to make us think that we could be looking at editorial content.

Editorial and Consumer Responsibility

Who is responsible for where we end up when we browse online? It is the liability of our favorite news site or it some reloaded version of “caveat emptor,” where the buyer - or person browsing online - should beware?

Is it enough to mark content as “sponsored” or “advertisement” in an unobtrusive way that ensures most readers won’t see it?

Not Just for Junk Sites

native ad example
You may be thinking: “Yes, I see your arguments but only junk sites allow native advertising.” Not true.

The Atlantic got into a media hailstorm last year when it allowed a Church of Scientology-sponsored online article to look a little bit too much like their own respected journalism for most readers’ comfort. It featured just a small yellow banner at the top noting it as “sponsor content.” Adweek does a nice job getting to the heart of that episode.

They apologized and removed the paid content 11 hours after it was published - but not before doing damage to their reputation.

The FTC Weighs In

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has long held that advertisements must be clearly labeled, easy to see and that the label must appear close-by to the paid content.

However, much of their ruling was created in response to print advertising and is open to interpretation. For example: one person’s opinion of close-by may be too far away from another reader’s perspective.

Online media and native advertising are a totally new ball game. While a sponsored print ad might catch your eye for a moment - you might even read the first few lines before thinking “Hey, wait a minute…” - it’s easy enough to look away.

On the web, you could be led to unsecured sites that will enable popups or dangerous content. New media requires new rules for how ads can look and function.

A Slippery Slope for Site Owners

Is it ok if your readers think paid content is the opinion or research of your staff? What loyalty do you owe your readers? Is it excusable to let them click unknowingly on an ad so that you have the revenue to keep their favorite content rolling out?

After all, you need to pay your staff and for overhead to create the site and, in almost every case, readers are reading for free and it’s your advertisers that keep you in business.

...And Readers

Even if you are reading the website of a printed magazine or newspaper, the majority of readers now get their content online.

When was the last time you purchased a printed newspaper? When was the last time you checked out the news online?

Thought so. And you expect them to stay in business by what business model exactly?

One can hardly exist without the other. An advertiser doesn't want his ad to appear on a site with no traffic and a site can’t continue to create content without income from ads.

Thoughts for Advertisers Considering “Going Native”

Sure you may get more clicks with a native than a traditional ad, but if you alienate would-be consumers by making them feel “tricked” into visiting your site or landing page, are those clicks worthwhile?

Even if you are selling something you believe your audience wants, is it worth it if this audience thinks you needed to mislead them into learning more about you?
Be careful. Native advertising may result in more clicks in the short-term but can cause damage to your professional reputation over the long run.

Why Does It Matter?

As discussed above, it matters in terms of the reputation of the company buying the native ad. But it also can make the publication look shoddy.

For example: an editor sends a writer out on an attention-getting story with an unusual angle. They invest a lot of money and time into the story. Then they publish it next to an advertorial making preposterous claims. It makes the journalism look shoddy, doesn't it?

Readers begin to take the publication less seriously, readership declines and advertisers will pay less to advertise on the site. So, at what price native advertising?

Does Reddit Have the Answer?

One site taking an interesting approach to the native advertising question is Reddit. The community-driven discussion site does two things differently from the others: they make the paid content very obvious and they allow the reader to get involved by voting on whether or not they want the content to appear and allowing them to post comments in response to the claims made by the paid content.

Have you ever found yourself yelling back at the television or just wishing you could give that advertiser your opinion? Reddit knows.

Their approach works on more than one level: not only does it allow the reader to feel empowered by granting them a voice and a vote, it also attracts more people to read the paid content so that they can jump into the discussion.

Not bad.

More Questions Than Answers

Native advertising is a complicated, multifaceted subject and one for which the publishing and advertising industries have not come up with a hard-and-fast ruling. How do you feel about native advertising? What is the policy of your favorite sites? Tell us in the comments section!

What Does Native Advertising Mean for You?

There are lots of factors that affect whether or not native advertising should be a part of your overall marketing strategy. As a small business owner, producing native ads for major websites probably isn't a tactic you'll want to take for budgetary reasons. However, if you think the technique could serve your business, you may be able to develop a content partnership with smaller niche websites where you contribute to their blog to help spread awareness of your brand.

Looking for other ways to make your small business shine online? Get in touch with Pronto today!


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