We were not discussing the controversy of the oxford comma nor “who” vs. “whom,” but instead, “the separation of church and state” – the practically holy idea that journalists and advertisers should exist and operate far, far away from one another.
This idea divided not just my class, but an entire generation of journalists who have questioned the place of advertisers when it comes to publishing editorials.
Native advertising is created to blend in with its surroundings – in newspapers, magazine spreads, online articles, television broadcasts and radio shows. They often appear in the form of “sponsored content,” and an overwhelming amount of consumers can’t tell the difference between these native ads and actual editorial material.
If you’ve been on the site of any major publication lately, you’ve seen examples of this. Buzzfeed is notorious for their native ads, it’s easy for advertisers to produce content that mirrors the site’s cartoonish looks and quick wit, especially when the viewers are in the prime age – 18-33, according to Adweek – to be perceived as acceptable forms of content.
When you read an article that continually name-drops a product, watch the American Idol judges sip out of their Coke glasses, hear a radio DJ promote a venue or check out a magazine spread made up entirely with products from one brand, you are experiencing a native advertisement- whether you realize it, or not.
While the term “native advertising” has been a buzzword over the last few years, the idea, according to assistant professor Joseph Glennon, has been around as long as the mediums they are hosted in have.
“The oldest, and one of the most unapologetic examples I’ve seen is an 80-page insert in a newspaper in Hawaii in 1927 for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel,” he said in an email. “When I started, we called most of them advertorials, paid content, created to blend in with the editorial content.”
Glennon explained that the rise in native ads in recent times is simply because agencies have discovered that they work. He said that banner ads online receive about 0.2-0.3 percent click rates while the native ads receive at least 50 percent more views.
Philadelphia is currently at a crossroads when it comes to what it will and will not allow in terms of advertisements. A city council committee has approved a few locations for new, 3-D electronic billboards in highly-trafficked spots around the city.
According to CBS Philly, these billboards would display about 70 percent advertisements and 30 percent, “PSAs and other material” like promotions of local nonprofits and events taking place in the city.
These billboards are essentially a giant form of native advertising, mixing city-related public information right in with the advertisements.
While native ads are still required to be labeled, as are all ads, a large portion of people who view them will not recognize them as such.
In 1963, David Ogilvy, sometimes referred to as “the father of advertising,” spoke to this as an advantage: “It has been found that the less an advertisement looks like an advertisement, and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look and read,” he said.
And this was the concept that riled up my class of journalism students – the idea that a lot of readers won’t know the difference.
“It depends on the publisher and the audience,” said Alison Ebbecke, a visiting assistant professor to the advertising department. “If [the publication] is extremely credible, if it’s done well, if the brand trusts the publisher, then you get a successful native ad.”
Ebbecke added that negative feelings toward ads happen when a brand pushes too much and when people feel that they’re being advertised to.
“As a consumer, I don’t have a problem with it if the content isn’t skewed too heavily,” Ebbecke said. “Sometimes I’ll immediately stop reading if the advertising method has taken over.”
The successful native advertisements, the ones that pass off completely as editorial content, though, are the ones my classmates and I are worried about.
The idea of sponsored content immediately calls in to question a possible bias behind the story and the questionable ethics of the publication. Journalists have been known to lose their jobs, their credibility, over getting extravagant gifts or accepting money in exchange for a positive story.
“If journalists don’t have their integrity, what do they have?” one of my classmates posed.
John Oliver discussed the idea on his show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” mentioning an advertisement that ran on the New York Times’ site about women in prisons.
The longform piece discussed issues of family strain, abuse and facing the outside world after being released. Graphics, statistics, multimedia and interviews create an in-depth report on an important issue facing women, and yet, it was a paid post by Netflix, promoting season two of “Orange is the New Black.”
“As far as native advertising goes, that’s about as good as it gets,” Oliver said. “the reporting was real and the sponsored content was minimal – but it is still an ad.”
My class entertained the idea that if print publications don’t jump on board with the trend within the next few years, will we have print publications to work for?
Perhaps it is naive to say that I’d like to succeed with perfect morals in an industry that is ever-changing, especially when they find solutions to keep it afloat during a time that many print publications are desperately drowning.
But, if the people accepting money from advertisers are the same people writing stories – if we do actually abolish the line that separates “church and state” – would we be able to call ourselves ethical, unbiased reporters?
I don’t think so.
Paige Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @By_paigegross.