What’s so wrong with ‘native advertising’?

BuzzFeed. I love it. If I had to name three of the biggest time sucks for me during downtime, it’s Facebook, Etsy and BuzzFeed. I can get sucked into all the memes and lists – more often than not, I’m only reading the ones that make me laugh until I’m in tears (See:27 Reasons Why Old People Are the Best People on the Internet). But, I digress.

A few weeks ago on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the host ranted about the new trend of native advertising, a form of digital advertising known as sponsored or paid content that is designed to look like editorial content (to learn more, read Ali’srecent blog post). Swiffer and GE were two of the examples of advertisers who provided sponsored content on BuzzFeed in particular. Then, FOX News’ “Media Buzz” had an ethical debate on the topic – is it OK that advertisers are providing paid content disguised as editorial?

As a practice, pay-to-play isn’t new. Newsflash: print journalism has always engaged in advertorial practices and pay-to-play “editorial” opportunities. Have you read a magazine lately and found yourself reading an article only to notice “Special Advertising Section” printed in small type at the top? On the flip side, what you may not notice are the magazines whose editorial sources directly correlate to their advertisers. Yes, some publications (even some TV news shows) require businesses to pay for ads or time on the air in exchange for editorial content. That said, why should native advertising be viewed differently in the online space?

To some degree, I agree with John Oliver and the FOX News experts – you do feel a little manipulated when you’re reading an article you think is editorial but is in fact sponsored content. However, is that always a bad thing? Our goal as PR professionals is always to think outside of the box for our clients. We regularly pitch ideas to journalists that will be informative to readers. John Oliver used the example of Swiffer’s “9 Ways Cleaning Has Become Smarter.” Read it. Aside from the blurb at the top that screams “sponsored content” and No. 6 on the list, the content really has nothing to do with Swiffer – but it relates to the concept of their products: smarter cleaning solutions.

In Ali’s post, she made the point of the importance of being aware of what content you are consuming. I don’t know about you, but I generally pay attention to what I’m reading online and in print and recognize which is true editorial and which is not. Maybe that’s due to my profession. If I’m being totally honest, I’m less likely to initially notice the “special advertising section” disguised as an article in a magazine than I am to miss it online. Not because I’m not paying attention, but my eyes are not usually at the very top or bottom of the page where the disclaimer is listed. That’s why this works.

So, I guess my point is this: if it gives me interesting and engaging content – like tips or a good laugh – is it really a bad thing? Don’t get me wrong – I am 100 percent in favor of earned media coverage versus paid any day of the week. It’s why we exist as a firm. But if I have a client with a budget to participate in digital native advertising, I would absolutely recommend that over a print ad or TV commercial any day. However, I would also ensure that what they’re putting out there is valuable to readers.