Native advertising will fail if it means "Let’s lie to the natives"

By Kirk Cheyfitz , written on November 30, 2012

From The News Desk

As an advertising executive and popularizer of the term “post-advertising,” I begrudgingly accept “native advertising” as the latest buzzword du jour. Over the past month, the term has propagated across the pages (paper and virtual) of Techcrunch, Adweek, Advertising Age, PandoDaily, and so on. It’s even appeared on the UK blog of Econsultancy, though virtually no one in UK content marketing had heard the term “native advertising” when I asked around at an industry summit this week.

I guess we have Fred Wilson to thank (or blame) for all this. In September he gave a speech in which he spoke of “native monetization systems” for Web sites. These are little bursts of marketing tailored to the look and feel of a specific platform. Think Facebook Likes, promoted Tweets, special deals via Foursquare, and Google paid-search ads tied to keywords.  Mashing up the blogs, we learn that native can also be a repackaged version of advertorials defined by the users and delivered “in-stream” as digital ads that don’t suck, disguised as content. Media firm BIA/Kelsey predicts approximately $3.85bn of social ad spend will go to these native ads in four years in the US alone.

In other words, we don’t know what it is, exactly, but we know how many billions of dollars advertisers will spend on it.

Having cruised through the clashing definitions, descriptions, and predictions, however, I think I understand what’s causing the cognitive dissonance: The content that is truly native to various media, of course, is not advertising as we know it. And the main obstacle for native advertisingto become a true trendsetter in my business is the fact that ads are not native. But this has more to do with the newly contested definition of “advertising” than with the meaning of “native.”

Native content on TV takes the form of a show, not a 30-second spot; certainly not a spot that pretends to be part of the show by using the same plots and scenery. Native content on a blog takes the form of a newsy post, not a display ad and certainly not an “advertorial” — a disingenuous piece of paid ad copy dressed up to look like a post. Native Facebook content is a shared story from a friend on your newsfeed that looks, reads, attracts attention, and compels Likes and sharing just like any other good Facebook story; it isn’t a piece of copy pushing product in your newsfeed. And so on.

Native ads on these platforms, it follows, aren’t ads at all in the traditional sense. They clearly can’t be bits of copy or film pushing product while falsely claiming to be stories or posts worthy of attention. “Ads disguised as content,” to use Adweek’s description, are not a good idea because they entail lying to the audience. A good idea would be authentic stories that actually merit attention by delivering news or entertainment in the form that is native to the medium in which they appear.

The best ads, in other words, aren’t ads anymore. (Or, put another way, we need to radically redefine “advertising” before any form of it can be deemed native.)

While this seems perfectly clear to many, it is amazingly difficult to convey this kind of thinking to people steeped in the practice of traditional advertising. To them, an ad has ever been and ever will be a piece of paid media designed and placed to interrupt an audience in the process of consuming a piece of native content (like, say, “How I Met Your Mother,” or a magazine or newspaper article). If it isn’t paid media and it doesn’t interrupt, then it’s not an ad; which means it’s never measured, considered, or used as “advertising.” This annoyingly rigid mindset is now infecting the oxymoronically but inventively named “native advertising.”

Forbes, for example, believes “native” is a series of old-fashioned advertorials tagged with pretty new names: Forbes BrandVoice or AdVoice. (I can’t divine the difference.) The brainchild of Forbes “chief product officer” and former working journalist Lewis D’Vorkin, BrandVoice features such corporate-penned posts as Northwestern Mutual’s stunningly self-serving, completely-beside-the-point snippets of its CEO’s blindingly obvious business advice. For example, “You don’t get to be CEO of a major financial security company like Northwestern Mutual without having a talent for getting results…” Um, duh?

The main problem with advertorials like this is they always were and still are boring, second-rate pieces, featuring mediocre to bad writing to tell self-serving corporate PR stories with zip news value. In a medium that allegedly earns its audience with trustworthy coverage of real business news, there’s nothing native about such PR silliness.

On the other hand, over on YouTube and Palladium boots’ website, we are treated to one of the great native ads of all time: The irrepressible Johnny Knoxville takes us on an idiosyncratic tour of Detroit, the down and out city that has become the favored adventure tourism destination for the cool, creative kids from all nations. As a piece of film, it’s captivating. As a piece of news, it’s enlightening. As an ad for Palladium’s hallmark spirit of exploration and the brand’s appeal to 20-somethings worldwide, it’s unbeatable. Solid value in media and damn good native advertising.

It is simply true that the newest and most effective forms of advertising are now stories that audiences find valuable. They aren’t paid ads. In fact, they take non-ad forms and most of their distribution is through sharing on social networks. But they connect audience interests with brands and their business goals in ways that sell more stuff and that makes them advertising.

So at the end of the day, the uncertainty over the meaning of “native advertising” is not about the definition of “native,” but really about the recent lack of clarity regarding what “advertising” is. To have native advertising, the ad business has to redefine “advertising” to include authentic, informative, or entertaining stories that are not paid units, that attract audience attention on their own merits (like “Star Wars” or “Skyfall”) and that compel social sharing to spread their messages like STDs.

Once that’s accomplished, we can call the new forms of advertising “native,” so long as they really are. We also could call them post-advertising or non-advertising or quantum theory or house paint and it likely wouldn’t matter.

Whatever we call this stuff, this is what advertising is becoming and one day we will simply call it all “advertising.” This will happen, as I’ve written here and elsewhere, for solid economic reasons. Because the most efficient and effective way to advertise in this era of shared media is to use a modest paid media budget to attract a targeted audience around a valuable piece of native content that is crafted and deployed to stimulate the maximum social sharing.

And yes. You can view this post as a native ad for my agency, Story Worldwide. Or it’s just another piece of content on PandoDaily.

Or it’s both. Or neither.