Native Ads Jeopardize the Integrity of the News

Ava Sirrah knows the intricacies of native advertising and branded content from the inside out. The Ph.D. candidate in Columbia University’s journalism school studies how advertisers are shaping news production and dissemination. And what she has learned is troubling.

Sirrah first gives an excellent explanation of the business end of native ads in this article in the Columbia Journalism Review. She cites the Tow Center for Journalism’s native advertising guide in helping understand the nuances.

“’Branded content’ and ‘native advertising’ are often used interchangeably,” she writes, “but they represent two different functions: ‘branded content’ is the term used by the ad industry to describe the type of content they are either making or buying. Chris Rooke, senior vice president of strategy and operations at the native advertising production company Nativo, explained in an interview that branded content is made with the intent to affect ‘consumer perception, affinity, and consideration.’”

“Native advertising is predicated on a newspaper’s ability to translate the storytelling credibility of its newsroom to the publisher’s advertising department, even though it remains largely separate from the newsroom,” she continues.

The problem lies in its very nature – it’s designed to straddle the line drawn by editorial integrity. The Tow Center’s report includes two key findings: (italicized text is from the report)

  • Native ads borrow the credibility and authority of their respective news publishers. A former employee of the T Brand Studio, The New York Times’s branded content division, said the studio tries to create native ads that are “Times-ian.”[1] This notion—creating content that is in the same tone as a publication’s newsroom—was repeated on several occasions by people working across several news titles.
  • Clients have significant negotiation power. News publishers compete with each other for advertising revenue and this environment gives marketers an upper hand when they negotiate the terms of a native campaign.

The result? Content that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck … but is decidedly not a duck. In fact, a study on sponsored news shows readers recognize sponsored content for what it is and feel deceived by it.

This report certainly supports the industry experts who have been warning against the rampant use of native ads and sponsored content. Not only is it risky to publishers – like the time The Atlantic ran a native ad from the Church of Scientology, a move that was so off-brand it was almost a parody of itself – it’s risky to the integrity of journalism.

“Ultimately, the trust newsrooms work hard to secure may be jeopardized by the creation and dissemination of native advertisements,” Sirrah writes. “Before unpacking why the trend is troublesome, we have to understand why publishers were tempted to experiment with this ad format in the first place.”