Native Advertising, or advertising that mimics the storytelling design of journalism publications, could be the cause for credibility loss in journalism. But what can be said about its ethical implications? Is tricking the news consumer to read an advertisement ethical? In this paper, I will use the ethical theory of Social Responsibility and Kant’s theory of Categorical Imperative to try to identify if native advertising has a place in the journalism industry.
Native advertising, sponsored content, or collaborative content, it’s all the same. It is content that is created in a way that can attract web readers, print readers, and social media users to respond positively to advertising tactics that don’t look like traditional advertising (Del Ray, 2012).
Native advertising often takes a form of sponsored content on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram posts that are presented in a way similar to that of typical social media content (Smith, 2014).
This is an issue for marketing and advertising strategists to take note of going forward with the rapid transition of print-centric journalism to digital-first practices. Recent reports have shown that with 31% of financial support for news coming from its audience and capital investment, advertising has had to make up 69% of the funding to support news production (Pew Research, 2014).
Buzzfeed, a news organization prominently consumed via social media platforms, is a prime example of how advertisers are collaborating with organizations to create and publish native advertising. Using Twitter as an outlet, Buzzfeed publishes sponsored content from its clients in hopes of generating web-traffic to the advertiser’s site or its web-link. Without a clear distinction between the Buzzfeed visual identity and that of its advertisers, news consumers are more likely to engage in this form of advertising (Del Ray, 2012).
Atlantic magazine published an advertisement on its website in 2012 featuring The Church of Scientology. The advertisement was disguised as a traditional Atlantic story in order to get website users’ attention (Poynter, 2012).
The amount of flack that the Atlantic received for its decision to publish this advertisement online caused the publication to release a statement apologizing and noting, “we now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way” (Haugnhey, Stelter, 2013).
The challenges of this content model extend to publishers as well. At the Atlantic, publisher Jay Lauf says he hasn’t yet settled on the best way to value and charge for custom content. Right now, The Atlantic charges a higher cost per thousand impressions, $40-plus, for an advertiser’s advertisement that runs next to its sponsored content because of “better performance” (Del Ray, 2012).
Another example of problematic native advertising found online is U.S. cookie brand Oreo’s ‘Daily Twist’ campaign. The brand used 100 ads over 100 days to turn news stories into designs using the famous cookie. Its sponsored stories became creative advertising news. Using news judgement from relevant topics at the time, Oreo created every advertisement around a particular time (Cooper, 2013). This particular campaign blurred the lines of editorial and promotions by harnessing news as a way of promoting the Oreo brand.
The concern here is not only consumer confusion, but the organization’s advertising revenue as well. The cost is attributed to the better performance that these type of advertisements receive. Is it ethical for news organizations and advertisers to profit from consumer confusion?
Rebecca Lieb stated in her report “Defining and Mapping the Native Advertising Landscape,” the battle for media consumer attention has been very difficult. Yet this challenge for advertising to generate attention is taking the editorial and commercial content into a gray area.
Lieb said later on in her report that transparency, disclosure and trust are important for the creation of native advertising. Lieb states “a code of ethics is required to maintain editorial objectivity and the boundaries between publisher and editorial work. Until industry self-regulation emerges, it is absolutely imperative all parties on the side of caution: too much, rather than too little, disclosure” (Lieb, 2013, p. 13).
Wonderfactory founder Joe McCambley is quoted in a New York Times article stating that allowing advertising agencies to publish directly to publishing companies websites is a huge mistake that “could kill journalism if publishers aren’t careful” (Carr, 2013).
The American Marketing Association code of ethics states that marketers and advertisers must do no harm to the community, foster trust in fair dealings, as well as embrace ethical values (AMA, 2015). This includes building strong relations with consumer confidence with advertising’s core values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, transparency, and respect. According to Chris Moore of the Advertising Educational Foundation, “advertisers are in the business of communicating with thousands, even millions, of ‘others’ all the time. That gives us thousands of millions of chances to practice what we believe every day” (Moore, 2004).
Ben Cooper of B & T Weekly argued, “in the wrong hands, social advertising is a lethal weapon.” It is evident that native advertising can be used as a means of connecting advertisers with those who may be less likely to interact with their brand or product” (Cooper, 2013).
Providing clear distinction in the way these advertisements are designed and clearly noting that they are advertisements will allow readers make their own distinctions between editorial and advertising content. The ethical implications behind this field of advertising would suggest that tricking consumers creates distrust, one of advertising’s core values.
The ethical theory of Social Responsibility suggests that there is an understanding that news is news, not something else (Hutchins Commission, 1942 p. 20-29). Journalists have trained their audiences over the course of the industry’s existence to understand that what they see in print and online is actually news. With native advertising appealing to an audience’s understanding of news, this method of reaching people is a form of trickery that would challenge the goals of social responsibility. As journalists, the media should strive for clear presentation methods of editorial and advertising content in hopes of not blurring a line between the two industries. Under this theoretical approach, the strengths would be that all content is presented with a sincere interest in the consumer. A major weakness of this approach would be that the industry would need to explore alternative advertising ideas that are potentially less profitable than native advertising.
Furthermore, according to Kant’s theory of Categorical Imperative, the trickery of native advertising would be taken as universal law (McCormick, p. 12, 2015). Kant’s theory would suggest that an agency or news organization should act only according to a maxim that would be the law of the land. Strengths of this theoretical approach would be that consistency is at the core of advertising. A major weakness of this approach would be rigidity of this selling method.
In short, native advertising attacks journalism’s long developed audience and their perception of what is news. With native advertising on the rise on social media, it will be imperative for journalists and advertisers to strategize alternative methods of making compelling campaigns for an audience. An easy fix would be to label all native advertising as sponsored content; however, that may not be enough as social media consumers may believe everything they see online is fact (Hagar, 2013).
From a selling perspective, native advertising is a solution to a trending decline in journalism revenue (Pew Research, 2014). However, journalists must consider the implications of blurring editorial and promotional content. If journalists truly believe that truth and transparency are at the heart of journalism, and that the industry has a responsibility to the public, native advertising would be detrimental to the cause of journalism. Tricking news consumers to read native advertisements by being presented in journalistic nature would bring down the pillars of social responsibility. Furthermore, assuming that native advertising is considered a form of trickery, journalists should choose against using native advertising as it would violate Kant’s theoretical stance on lying. Kant argued that lying should not be universal because it would be self-defeating (McCormick, 2015 pg. 3). Going forward, advertising agencies and news organizations alike will have to work together to solve this problem. An understanding of news judgement, news literacy, and advertising strategies may help to unblur the gray area that native advertising has created thus far.
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