Native advertising's blurred lines are the publisher's fault, advertisers say

By Erin Griffith , written on September 27, 2013

From The News Desk

If you're uncomfortable with the way native advertising has broken down the barrier between ads and editorial, do not blame advertisers. Blame publishers! That was the message I got from a room full of advertisers (who else?) at the IAB Mixx conference earlier this week.

It's Advertising Week in New York, which means lots of people in media (90,000 in fact) come to the city to ask each other questions on panels, throw parties, and hob-nob with Madison Avenue. Theme weeks are big here; we also have Internet Week and Social Media Week.

The message I took from this panel -- don't blame advertisers for taking advantage of publishers who might be selling their souls (and editorial integrity) for deceptive advertorials -- felt just a little dirty. Given the opportunity to dress up their ads like unbiased editorial content, advertisers are not going to say no, even if its wrong. "If left to our own devices, we'll push the boundaries," said Stacy Minero of media agency Mindshare. (Update: Minero contacted PandoDaily to clarify that her comments around pushing  boundaries were meant in the context of innovating new ad formats, not for exploiting customers.)  Said Peter Minnium, head of brand initiatives at IAB, "Native broke advertising out of the ghetto, out of the right rail. Now it can live in the center of the page."

I couldn't stop singing the lyrics from Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines in my head during the conversation.

Minnium quickly added that the goal of native advertising is not to deceive readers, which is simply solved by being crystal clear with readers. See, it's up to publishers to decide how far they're willing to let advertisers take native ads.

In the last year, this new form of advertising has been the darling of the media world, led by BuzzFeed and followed by the Atlantic and Forbes (as well as PandoDaily, with our sponsored series). Already the biggest, and most widely repeated concern over native advertising is that leaves reader confused over what is editorial and what is advertising.

It's that precise reason that the New York Times won't be going native anytime soon, according to executive editor Jill Abramson. In May, she said that The New York Times has had to fight to gain the trust and authority it has with its readership, so the last thing she wants to do is purposefully confuse readers about which is which. Native advertising that conflates ads and news can dilute a media organization’s editorial authority, she said.

Nonetheless, plenty of other publications are hoping native will keep them in business. Once they go native, their advertisers, say, its their responsibility to tell readers why they're doing what they're doing.

"The industry is not explaining to the consumer why this is happening," said Steve Rubel, chief content strategist and Edelman. "Editorial voices can help explain this to the reader." He suggested using editor's letters to lay out the situation.

The problem with this solution is that the "why," of native advertising doesn't exactly make for tantalizing reading. I should know, I write about advertising for a living.  Are editors really going to tell readers that, because of the programmatic buying and selling of ads, via realtime bidding, digital advertising is now more efficient and CPMs are lower, bringing publishers a fraction of what they used to make on banner ads? This hypothetical editors letter might also mention that pricing on premium ad sales (ads sold face-to-face, not programmatically on ad exchanges) have fallen as a result, too. Editors can then conclude that publishers need new ways to advertise, and native is the next-best solution.

It's dry stuff. I'm not sure that, once readers are told about the economics of web publishing, they'll be less confused when they see that a certain article is marked as "sponsored" or, in the case of Forbes and Buzzfeed, "community" content, and therefore it doesn't adhere to the same editorial standards as the rest of the site.

The panelists noted that, the closer a site's content is to entertainment, the less of a need to explain there is. Lighter content doesn't need as much distinguishing between advertisement and editorial. Which is true for, say, magazines, which have always had cozy relationships with advertisers, especially with advertorials.

That approach puts BuzzFeed in a precarious position, though. BuzzFeed's entire foray into journalism is based on the premise that people want mindless cute animal content next to hard-hitting political reporting (or, a bizarre and offensive blend of the two!). The site's native ads and community content is designated as such, but little explanation is offered beyond a "partner" label.

Ad-supported media has always existed in uncomfortable ways in some form or another -- radio anchors have read advertisements since I can remember, for example. But this latest native iteration of it is pushing the boundary further than ever before. It's up to the publishers to decide how far they'll let advertisers go.

[Image via WogBlog]