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Native Advertising: Not Evil, Just Dumb

There’s a great article on native advertising in the Guardian today (thanks Dom Waghorn) by ad thought leader Bob Garfield.

The gist of the article is that although native advertising (aka sponsored content/advertorials/astroturfing) has been heralded as the saviour of the display advertising industry and the channels/publications that rely on it, native advertising is evil. It is evil because it relies on duping the audience – Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer says she feels “less fulfilled” when she doesn’t see these ads, but in truth native advertising is a pathetic last wheeze / gimmick of a dying industry having to resort to duping people – both advertisers and audiences.

But the real problem is surely not that native advertising is evil by some Platonic editorial ideal – it’s that in practice it is bad for business – the business of the advertiser, the business of the ad industry and the business of the advertising platform (publisher/channel).  

For the platform, sure – you get a short term bump in ad revenue, but long term you will surely lose audience as the value of your content proposition is undermined by being diluted with ad content (often disguised as “from around the Web” editorial style links).  You make your readers work harder to weed out the ads. For the business (and digital ad agencies), dressing up paid media as earned media cannot but erode digital advertising effectiveness – these astroturf ads will surely suffer the same fate as the banner blindness affliction of banner ads.  And native ads also undermine brand image by undermining trust – the fundamental purpose of branding is to communicate authenticity – but native advertising is inherently inauthentic.  Where does that leave the brand? Smacking of desperation. And who wants to buy a desperate brand?

The bright side for entrepreneurs is that there is a business opportunity in developing a native ad blocker.

For advertising platforms – the Financial Times has got it right – specialised content that people with money are prepared to pay for.  And the advertisers who get it invest in creating products worth advertising get it right too.  Advertising works when you have something worth advertising.  Content works when it is content worth paying for.

No astroturf necessary.

Native ads, not evil. Just dumb.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

  • I see where you’re coming from – but I think you’re totally undermining the shift that is happening on the branded content side. As a result of native advertising, brands are forced to get smarter about the types of content they produce and they only have one chance to get it right. I agree that users will lose respect for the brands, that is, unless they start telling stories that we want to consume or producing content that adds value (for example, I am inspired by content produced by Red Bull & Clif Bar, North Face, Guinness etc). If brands produce content that is just as compelling as an actual story on a publisher’s site, then it deserves to be in the content well.
    The modern internet & social platforms are also getting smart about curating only meaningful content and in the end, it’s going to be a better model for everyone (users, brands, publishers etc). Just give it time!!

  • Wow… talk about underinformed.

    Tell me how an interesting piece of content, made not by, but for a brand, is less trustworthy than say a piece of advertising (Banner) which demands your attention every couple of seconds by moving, in which the message is greatly exaggerated?

    I get the idea that this piece is in itself a form of native advertising…. just for the other party.

    P.s. I think that the whole point is moot…. as I commented on mentioned piece: as long as the publishers still think in the old way (content = king) this will continue… in order for it to change both writers (journalists?) and publishers need to understand that its about the intent of reading…. that info is far more important then the content. Focus on content and Native is the result. Focus on intent and using the data of the whole site and getting to target stuff to the right people becomes the focus….

  • The reason native advertising is evil is because IT DELIBERATELY DECEIVES YOU.

    The argument that users are able to distinguish native ads is absolute bollocks! The whole entire point of native ads is to appear as native content. They will continue to do everything they can to make it as hard as possible to distinguish these ads.

    The only argument in favor of native ads is what the author of the linked article called the foxhole defense. Fine. But don’t try to make excuses.

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.