Native Advertising a Media Credibility Crisis in Waiting

Product placement and “advertorial” content is nothing new, and many think the expansion of these ideas to include embedded content is simply the logical next step.

Logical perhaps, but risky, according to some.

“Use of ‘embedded’ approaches to advertising and promotion have been growing for several years and their forerunners, product placement and ‘advertorial’, have been around since the early 20th century,” writes Jim Macnamara in The Conversation.

“But the placement of Aston Martin cars in James Bond movies and Coca-Cola drink cups in front of judges of TV talent shows are obvious and relatively innocuous compared with the latest advertising and promotion techniques,” he continues.

Macnamara cites an advertising landscape that includes ad blockers, TiVo and other technology that is forcing advertisers to use more invasive and less obvious solutions.

“New advertising approaches go by 20 or more names including ‘native advertising’, ‘branded content’, ‘brand integration’, and ‘brand placement’. What these techniques have in common is that paid advertising and promotional messages are embedded in media content so as to be at least partially hidden and sometimes invisible to media consumers,” Macnamara explains.

These might include content like paid interviews in talk shows, celebrity endorsements, paid posts online, sponsored digital publications that look like straight research, even storylines in TV sitcoms written to promote a particular product or service, he notes.

So it’s everywhere, basically, and it’s largely unregulated by an industry that is making up the rules as it goes. While publishers still talk about the sanctity of the line between editorial and advertising, clearly that line gets blurry or nearly transparent at times.

Macnamara cites the now iconic Scientology debacle in The Atlantic of an example of how quickly a badly-conceived native ad can spiral out of control, highlighting the dangers to a company’s brand and credibility.

So what’s the solution? According to Macnamara, industry guidelines will help, but can’t solve the problem entirely. And, aside from the morality, companies need to get a better handle on the ROI of native advertising. Do the techniques actually work, and is there any substantive research that shows they do?

To be sure, some studies show exactly the opposite; consumers tend to steer clear of the sponsored content when it’s obvious. For the more insidious marketing, though, this is harder to gauge. As Macnamara notes, now is the time for an abundance of caution.

“Given still unanswered questions about its effectiveness, significant ethical questions about some embedded practices, and the risk of a further media audience backlash – not to mention potential government regulatory intervention – advertisers and marketers should pay attention to self-regulation and standards. If they don’t they could see the media and advertising industries plummet further into a crisis of credibility, as well as an economic crisis.”