Recently, comedian John Oliver’s extended rant about native advertising went viral. Oliver made some insightful comments about native advertising, explaining what it is, how it works, and why it’s becoming more popular. Much of his commentary was criticism. Oliver points out that most media consumers don’t realize that native ads are actually ads and not regular articles written by journalists. He also points out that organizations like TIME, Inc. have come to rely on native advertising as a source of income more and more as traditional sources of income like print sales have dried up. He notes that when advertising and journalism meet like this, it limits the ability of the press to provide fair, objective news coverage. After the rant went live, insiders with a vested interest in native advertising’s success responded almost immediately to provide a counterpoint.
The question that should be raised is this: How can native advertising be done in an ethical way?
Here are some ideas:
It must be clear that native ads are ads.
Most websites list a phrase like “Sponsored Content” in small letters over any native ad. Some websites use slightly different background coloring to denote a native ad. These are good steps. Some brands are concerned that taking these steps defeats the point of native advertising; that people will not click on their article if they know it’s an ad. If you make compelling enough content, it will get clicked on.
Brands cannot use advertising as a means to quash criticism.
Part of Oliver’s rant focused on TIME rating reporters based in part on how friendly their content was to advertisers. It is unethical for a brand to ask a media company with whom they are placing any kind of advertisement to change their original content to favor the brand.
Some of these standards are actually required by the FTC. However, it is essential that advertisers and publishers hold themselves to an even higher standard than the FTC mandates if they want to maintain trust with the very people whom they wish to reach.
Would taking these steps address all of Oliver’s criticisms? Probably not, but they’d be a step in the right (ethical) direction.