Recently I was commissioned to write this article about native advertising for Sparksheet. You can see it on their website here where it appeared under the header: “It’s Complicated: The Tangle of News, Native Advertising and Trust”.
According to this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report, 28% of American and United Kingdom news audiences who could recall seeing native advertising online said it made them feel less positive about the news organization carrying it.
What does that tell us about the effect of native advertising on trust in the host media? Some would say that, if over a quarter of those recalling it don’t like it, kill it.
Some say it pretty vehemently.
The Wall Street Journal editor in chief, Gerry Baker, likens native advertising to a Faustian pact: “If [advertisers] manipulate the digital or print operations of those news organizations, it makes the reader confused as to what is news and what is advertising, and the reader’s trust, the very reason that those advertisers want to advertise in those news organizations, goes away.”
Journalist Andrew Sullivan, founder of The Dish website, addressed Harvard Law School last year with a talk called “How Advertising Defeated Journalism.” He was particularly critical of native advertising, which, he believes, endangers “the entire enterprise of writing.”
“Does it matter whether any of this stuff is actually related to the truth? Of course not. The truth is a peripheral matter,” Sullivan said. “After a while, in this circus of desperate attempts to get attention… there will be a moment in which the average reader will look at The New York Times and be so disgusted by what it’s become.”
However, before we close the case and deny publishers a source of revenue that is forecast to double in the next three years, even as other revenue streams decline, let’s consider the nature of trust in the media.
It isn’t just advertising that undermines trust in news media. Journalism is very good at undermining trust too. Journalism is like butchery; people devour the finished product but are squeamish about the process.
Unsettling them are practices like undercover journalism, stings and receiving stolen documents. “Reporters should just report the facts,” is a phrase I often hear in focus groups – but those saying it give scant consideration to how facts become available, especially those that people in authority don’t want journalists to see.
People also become queasy when journalists rock the boat. According to YouGov, 12 percent of Britons think investigative journalism has a negative effect on democracy. Further, 22 percent thought it was bad for society that The Guardian and Washington Post reported on materials given to them by Edward Snowden. Polls from the Pew Research Center show even greater skepticism of the leak’s value among Americans.
If nearly a quarter of people feel uncomfortable with newspapers carrying Pulitzer Prize winning journalism like that (a similar figure to the percentage uncomfortable with native advertising in news media), and one in eight are queasy about all investigative journalism—is it reason enough to kill that too?
If trust in news brands is already delicate, it might be argued that it shouldn’t be stressed further by the sudden introduction of commercial content. However, commercial content has existed, sanctioned by (and convenient to) editorial teams, since long before advertising went native.
I’m not exclusively talking about Advertorials, though they’ve been around for a while. (I remember, going back more than ten years, an advertising exec being sent to the news-floor of The News of the World to ask a journalist to help write an advertorial for a travel company. “I’ll help you if you can spell encyclopedia,” the exec was told. He couldn’t and the journalist didn’t write the copy.) I’m also talking about public relations.
For his 2009 book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies commissioned research from the journalism department of Cardiff University to analyze every single domestic news story (2,207 pieces) in The Mail, Telegraph, Times, Guardian and Independent over two randomly chosen weeks. They found that “41% of them were initiated by PR and/or contained material supplied by PR, and a further 13% of stories carried clear signs of PR activity.” They pointed to misleading bylines where rewrites of PR copy were attributed to “staff reporter” or a named writer. Davies writes, “PR professionals generally aim specifically to make their own role in a story invisible, and journalists are happy to go along with that.”
PR derived copy isn’t a new thing. It increased through the eighties and nineties as newspapers shed journalists who then moved to PR agencies with their newspaper know-how and contacts. The stories they succeed in getting into print aren’t advertorials or native advertising – because they aren’t even paid for. In fact, much of PR is an annoyance to newspaper’s advertising sales teams, which are trying to get the same companies to pay to advertise.
What if editorial based on PR from commercial organizations were replaced by native advertising that was clearly flagged as advertising and was paid for by the company that commissioned it? Publishers might lose a source of “clickbait,” but they would gain revenue and the readers would be more aware of the provenance of the content. What would that do to trust?
In his 2004 book My Trade, the broadcaster and ex-newspaper editor Andrew Marr offers advice on “how to read a newspaper.” He advises that readers should be wary of a different kind of PR: “Suspect research. Hundreds of dodgy academic departments put out bogus or trivial pieces of research purely designed to impress busy newspaper people and win themselves some cheap publicity.”
He also advises readers to “Know what you’re buying—no reader can hope to get a picture of what is happening without first knowing who owns the paper.” Another warning is to “register bias. Be aware that reporters are now less embarrassed to let bias show,” and that awareness of such bias “may point to the source of the story.”
What this paints is a picture of quite complicated news pages that take some decoding before the reader has a clear understanding of what is going on.
If, as Baker suggested, native advertising can confuse audiences about the provenance of content, so can PR derived clickbait, columnist bias and proprietorial influence. Of these, native advertising is the easiest to clearly label in order to alert readers to the type of content it is (I can’t imagine the other three ever being labelled when they occur). Similarly, of these, native advertising is the easiest to situate away from serious news pages (appearing instead on the fashion, wheels, travel and other lifestyle pages where audiences are used to reading about brands).
Theoretically it is also easy for a discerning media owner concerned about trust to turn some native advertising down. In February, Anna Watkins, managing director of The Guardian’s native ad unit, told Marketing Magazine that her team has turned down prospective advertisers who pushed for further mentions of their brand in editorial content in addition to the normal sponsored content.
“Native advertising in its worst instances can imply hoodwinking the reader [into thinking] that a commercial message is independent editorial. That’s a short-term win, and our approach is about maintaining trust of the readers,” Marketing Magazine reported Watkins saying.
Some people will always be uncomfortable with news media carrying native advertising but so too will some people always be uncomfortable when news media holds the establishment to account. In both cases discomfort should be minimized via appropriate execution not absolute exclusion—but publishers should know they won’t please all the people all the time.
Publishers should also be honest with themselves about the amount of PR content in their pages that originates from commercial sources. Taking it out or migrating it to paid-for native advertising that is clearly labelled would be good for both trust and revenues.
Meanwhile the majority of Reuters Institute respondents who could recall native advertising thought it neither increased nor decreased their trust in the news organization (around two thirds in both the US and UK). The figure is higher amongst certain demographics; according to Quartz, 86 percent of their target audience of executives don’t mind it.
It can even be liked. The UK’s Association of Online Publishers found that 59 percent of people who can recall native advertising find it interesting and informative. There are plenty of ‘gold standard’ examples of native content that audiences found to be as engaging and shareable as editorial pieces on similar lifestyle subjects.
If it is appropriately executed, why shouldn’t it be?