As print ad revenues hit their lowest point since 1950, traditional news publishers are struggling to find any avenue they can to make a buck. Many, including the New York Times and the Atlantic, have resorted to native advertising, the art of dressing up a paid advertisement to look like a news article. The most notorious example came from the Atlantic when it published a glowing profile of Scientology leader David Miscavige that was paid for by the church itself (the magazine later removed the piece).
The Atlantic’s Scientology ad was particularly troubling considering the church’s famed and highly litigious hostility toward its critics, including journalists. But native advertising continues to be highly lucrative for many news outlets, like Buzzfeed where these thinly-veiled advertorials, like JetBlue’s “50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out of Airplane Windows,” make up 100 percent of its advertising revenue.
Proponents of native advertising say that as long as an article is marked as a paid post, there’s no reason for news consumers to confuse a news story, which ideally has some allegiance to the truth without compromising to commercial interests, and an advertisement which is the opposite of that in every way.
But on last night’s episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver perfectly explained why that rationale is bullshit — or, in the parlance of those who fall over their words to defend native advertising, it’s “repurposed bovine waste.”
Citing a report from IAB which found that only 41 percent of news consumers can tell the difference between these advertorials and news articles, Oliver says that defending native ads is like “a camouflage manufacturer saying only an idiot could not tell the difference between that man and foliage.”
“Look, the camouflage clearly states ‘not foliage’ on the collar! It’s clear!” he adds. “And besides I’m sure the deer knows the difference between the two things. Deers are so smart. You have to respect deer.” Yes, to many news executives, readers are merely deer in headlights. What a comforting thought.
At the end of the segment, Oliver proposes a compromise between the news business and advertisers:
“If our news is going to be corrupted, we should at least get something in return. Every time a corporation sneaks advertising into our news and ruins it, our news should be allowed to sneak into their advertising.” What follows is a sultry Diet Coke ad that ends with a shirtless perfectly-sculpted spokesman taking a giant pull from the soda before launching into an update on the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
This isn’t the first time Oliver has bested many journalists when it comes to cutting through the bullshit of a complicated topic. In June, the comedian perfectly captured the hypocrisy of those who oppose net neutrality in a video that’s been viewed over 5 million times. Between Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart, we certainly live in a great time for current events-based television comedy. But these hosts are held to lower standards of fairness than traditional journalists and obviously nobody should rely on their shows as a sole source of news. And yet the fact that they are arguably less compromised and more capable of salient truth-telling than some of the biggest and oldest news organizations on the planet, means journalism might be even worse off than we thought.