Sponsored content or “native advertising” has been in the news lately after John Oliver condemned it as deceitful and amoral on his show Last Week Tonight. Oliver lamented that because sponsored content is delivered to consumers in exactly the same package as traditional content, it has the capacity to fool unsuspecting consumers.
While I think some of Oliver’s arguments are off-base, he did raise an interesting point about native content and its relationship with journalism. Journalism is supposed to be unbiased whereas advertising, by its definition, is completely biased.
For native advertising to work within news outlets, and be accepted by advertisers, journalists, and consumers, it needs to obey the following three rules:
1. Advertorial content should be clearly distinguishable from editorial content. Allowing an ad to pose as an article without differentiation can cross some lines. According Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in a speech last year, “by presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a non-biased source.” The New York Times, for instance, highlights sponsored content by employing “paidpost” as a subdomain.
2. Information should be honest and accurate. I think that if a piece of paid content is going to be mixed in with genuine news or other editorial content, then it should abide by the same laws of journalistic integrity. Misrepresenting data is bad for the brand, bad for the consumer, and bad for the host of the content.
3. Sponsored content should be interesting and engaging. This rule applies to all advertising. In the world of click bait and short attention spans, no one will read (or watch) anything that is not good.