Why I don’t like native advertising the way it is defined

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There’s been considerable discussion around native advertising (good reads here and here) of late. For the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines native advertising thus: it is an online advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience. Native ad formats match both the form and function of the user experience in which they are placed. The advertiser’s intent is to make the paid advertising feel less intrusive and thus increase the likelihood users will click on it. The word “native” is used to refer to the formatting of the advertising materials to make them appear more consistent with other media in the recipient’s universe.

Essentially, the good old ‘advertorial’ from the print medium re-packaged to suit the digital age. The advertorial was a print ad meant to look like editorial. It was meant to ‘trick’ the reader into noticing the ad. The hallmark of such ads (at least the well done, effective ones) was subtlety. The font matched the surrounding content and was almost always written in long copy, editorial style. The difference between that and what is being implemented now is that the current avatar is tweaked to match the digital property it appears in. So, a brand creates content that matches the environment – so what is good for BuzzFeed will not be good for The Atlantic or New York Times. In the classic print editorial, a single ad was created and was usually sent out to all kinds of print dailies & even magazines. So the same ad could appear in a tabloid and Reader’s Digest – not exactly consistent in terms of editorial content.

On television, brands have largely stuck to the good old 30-second commercial appearing in clearly demarcated slots. So the consumer could clearly separate the ad break from the main channel content. In the digital age, such demarcation is sought to be blurred as journalism blends with paid-for content. New York Times created an article recently (marked ‘paid post’) for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and won praise for that effort. There is a Netflix logo in the article, indicating that it is sponsored content, but at a quick glance, it would pass off as typical editorial content for most readers. Fact is, there will be a lot more credibility attached to that content than a paid-for ad. Such is the consumer mindset towards journalism as compared advertising: credible versus skeptical.

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In that context, I find what is practiced as native advertising very deceptive. It aims to fool the reader into believing that what they are reading is regular content from that property, un-influenced by any business or brand. The difference between this and an advertising message which is truly welcomed & enjoyed is that the latter feels like a reward. In the 1950s, Howard Gossage said famously: ’no one reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it is an ad’. The best of ads have sneaked past the barrier in our minds when it comes to commercial messages and have compelled us to notice them, watch them, enjoy them. It is a mutually beneficial relationship even though the receiver of the message knows that this is paid-for advertising. Most of the ads we have liked do follow this pattern: for the attention they seek, they reward the consumer with entertainment or new news.

Even when the native advertising content is seamless, there is always a chance that it might leave the reader a bit cheated. Take GE for example. I greatly admire GE’s digital marketing efforts – they have got their content creation strategy spot on. There is a concerted effort to portray the brand as an inventive, imaginative and involved in some serious science-based projects. Take a look at their website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, Reports and you will know what I mean. They have utilised each platform to its advantage and created content to suit that platform. As part of this strategy is ‘native advertising’ on BuzzFeed: the content matches what one would expect from that property – lists, provocative questions-as-headlines etc. Note that it is a separate ‘section’ and not a one-off article. The latter could run the risk of being seen alongside a ’typical BuzzFeed’ article about a vacuous celebrity. In a way, it is GE making sure that they have a platform of their own, away from other relatively trivial stuff in that property. ’11 Essential Things You Need To Know About 3D Printing’ sponsored by GE doesn’t sound so appealing and ‘native’ alongside ’33 Times Khloé Proved She Was The Best Kardashian’. In other words, it is not a true sync between the brand (it’s essence and what it stands for) and it’s native advertising partner. When I stumbled upon then GE-BuzzFeed articles I found the brand’s presence over there a bit jarring and out of sync with my perceptions of the individual brands, even though the articles meet all the ‘norms’ of native advertising.

As an aside, advertising that seamlessly blends with the environment without making any effort to be sneaky or deceptive gets my vote. Remember what Apple did with iPad Mini in TIME, Wired? The ad on the back cover of the magazines replicated the cover of the same issue. The ads highlighted iPad Mini as a great option to read digital versions of the magazine you were ready. It got the point across, blended in seamlessly with native content and was a paid ad. That was classy.

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