Native Advertising – Betrayal or Benefit? The evolving relationship between journalism and advertising and the implications for marketers

Written by: Regina Merks



Native advertising can be a variety of online marketing types which have in common that they aim to limit disruption in the consumers' online experience (Campbell and Marks, 2015). Proponents of native advertising argue that this content provides readers with useful additional information and content choices (Carlson, 2015). However, according to research consumers are not always able to differentiate between traditional news content and native advertising (Campbell & Marks, 2015). Hence, the placement of advertising where people expect to read news raises questions in terms of journalism ethics (Carlson, 2015). 


The purpose of this article aims to understand how the shift to online spaces led to news organisations and marketers to engage this form of promotional strategy.

How the Web 2.0 changed the game

As more communication moved online, brands saw the web as a great opportunity to interact with their customers (Fournier and Avery, 2011). However, they soon realised that their promotional messages were not welcome in the online space (Campbell & Marks, 2015). Traditional marketing communication messages on social media platforms were largely ignored (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Thus the old way of sending out marketing messages proved unsustainable in this environment (Edelman, 2010). 

Equally, for news organisations it was not possible to simply shift their offline revenue strategies online (Carlson, 2015). While print as well as broadcast media can draw large revenues from advertising, due to limited mass content, this strategy can not be applied to the digital space (Carlson, 2015). The shift to online content brought an abundance of information and left marketers with the challenge to gain the audiences' interest (Carlson, 2015). 

The use of native advertising has become increasingly common among publishers. Mid-2013 nearly three quarters of online publishers were already utilising native advertising (Marvin, 2013 in Carlson, 2015). The amount spend on this form of advertising in the U.S. is expected to reach $ 8.8 billion in 2018 (Sebastian, 2014 in Campbell and Marks, 2015). 

For companies entering the online space native advertising is offering a new source of growth possibilities (Marvin, 2013 in Carlson, 2015). New start-ups, such as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post or Mashable have based their business model on native advertising (Carlson, 2015). Visitors to the website are rarely aware that the content is mostly created by, or prompted by an advertiser (Campbell & Marks, 2015). 

The Hufffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are some of the newspapers that put so much effort into the development of native advertising content that they have created in-house studios dedicated to this task (Campbell & Marks, 2015)

NikeWomen Sponsorship on BuzzFeed (BuzzFeed, 2016)

What is Native Advertising?

The term “native advertising” is not quite clear and still lacks a coherent definition (Manic, 2015), as it is often used as a label for different types of online marketing communications (Campbell & Marks, 2015). However, the idea is not new: Advertorials used in traditional media are crafted in a way to reflect the other content on the page, so that readers would not regard it as an advert, but rather in-line with the surrounding content (Campbell and Marks, 2015). 

The CEO of Sharethrough, Dan Greenberg, first used the term “native advertising” (Manic, 2015). The idea behind it stems from implementing advertorial notions in the social media environment (Campbell and Marks, 2015). The Interactive Advertising Bureau (2013 in Manic, 2015) characterise native advertising as forms of adverts which are created to blend into a page's content by being consistent with the platform from an editorial perspective. To reduce disruption marketers design the content so that it blends in with the surrounding material of the page, thus also making it appear more relevant for readers (Campbell & Marks, 2015). 

Invited forms of native advertising place the control with the consumer who clearly welcomes the brand's messages (Campbell & Marks, 2015). They do this by explicitly inviting the brand into their communications, for example by friending, following, liking or becoming a fan of the brand on social media (Campbell & Marks, 2015). This non-disruptive and invited content created by brands is regarded as the earliest form of native advertising (Campbell and Marks, 2015). However, there are also forms of uninvited native advertising, which appear without the consumer's permission in an untypical location (Campbell and Marks, 2015), thus lacking relevance for readers. 

Advertisers and journalists join forces

Marketing and advertising departments were previously separate entities from the newsroom, but the digital space often leads to connections between things which were previously unthought of (Fratti, 2013 in Carlson, 2015). 

The meaning of advertising changed from news content add-on to becoming a vital part in the efforts to entice readers and prompt them to return to the site or even share the content with other potential readers (Carlson, 2015). Critics of native advertising insist on a separation between journalism and advertising (Carlson, 2015). Altschull (1997 in Carlson, 2015) stated that it can not be avoided that the news media content echos the interests of those who pay for it.

The relationship between advertisers and journalists has always been a balancing act between providing information and making profits (Carlson, 2015). To be less likely to be influenced from other outside sources, media organisations accepted advertising as a large source of funding (Carlson, 2015). As to ensure journalists autonomy, publishers introduced the so called Chinese wall or Church-State division which should, theoretically, separate editorial from business decisions (Carlson, 2015). This way they allowed advertisers access to reach mass audiences under the condition that they would not influence the content of the news (Carlson, 2015). Nowadays, advertising is not longer seen as separate, but rather just another type of material in the realm of journalism which intents to keep readers interested (Carlson, 2015). Native advertising is more centred around the audience rather than the brand (Srinivasa Rao in Business Standard, 2016). 

Marketers realised that if their messages sounded too much like sales pitches readers will reject their communication efforts (Business Standard, 2016). In the new social media spaces consumers have more options than ever and the power to select which messages to pay attention to and where to get their information (Armelini and Villanueva, 2009). 

While previously news could only be found in print media, now there is an abundance of news providers, e.g. Twitter and Facebook, (Carlson, 2015). Thus advertisers have to consider the media channels that the brand itself is in charge of (such as the company website), as well as media sites, such as social media forums, on which the brand has to earn its space (Edelman, 2010). Brands need to be where consumers are and adapt their communication messages to the new environment (Business Standard, 2016). According to a study 79 % of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies use some form of social media to connect with consumers (Armelini and Villanueva, 2009). 

Native vs. Traditional Advertising

Native advertising, which is non-secretive allows consumers to choose whether or not they want to communicate with a brand and where in the social media space this communication occurs (Campbell and Marks, 2015). Thus it does not deceive readers, but rather provides them with relevant content which reflects their interests (Business Standard, 2016). Fully disclosed and open native adverts provide a clear source and are invited by consumers (Campbell and Marks, 2015). 

Consumers were found to look at native advertisements 25 % more than at banner ads on websites and that these ads increased their purchase intent 18% more than banner ads (Sharethrough 2016). The reason why native advertising performs stronger and is more effective than banner adverts on website might be explained with a lack of awareness from the consumers. This might encourage advertisers to opt for secrecy and minimum disclosure (Campbell & Marks, 2015). 

Another reason for the increase of native advertising is the increase in ad-blockers used (Business Standard, 2016). A benefit of native advertising is, that it will not be blocked if it is not recognised as an advert. However, if a native ad is able to delude an ad-blocker depends on how well it blends in with the regular content of the site (Business Standard, 2016).

Even though native advertising is said to be most successful when people are not aware that it is even there (Campbell & Marks, 2015), it does not mean that it does have to be secretive.

For the cookie's 100th birthday Oreo created a series of 100 pieces of content which were published over a period of 100 days. The campaign was very successful, even though it was clearly obvious that it was an advertisement and there was no secrecy associated with it (Campbell and Marks, 2015). 

This goes in-line with the original intention of native advertising, which was to limit the annoyance of brand communication on consumers as to keep them interested (Campbell and Marks, 2015). So, this form of brand communication is kept subtle and does not disturb people but is rather entertains them and is thus welcome (Campbell & Marks, 2015). In this format consumers are often not even considering what they are reading as an advert, but rather content that is similar to that their friends produce on social media (Campbell and Marks, 2015). 

Ethical Considerations

While native advertising can in fact prove successful, it can also lead to a negative backlash if consumers feel that they have been deceived. In 2013 the Atlantic published a piece, titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” which was paid for by the Church of Scientology itself (Carlson, 2015). Even though the text was marked as “Sponsor Content”, they received many negative reactions (Campbell and Marks, 2015). Later that day the newspaper removed the advert and stated an apology to its readers beginning with the words “we screwed up” (Carlson, 2015). This case was one of the first occasions in which a traditional news organisation was confronted with unfavourable responses to their participation in native advertising (Campbell and Marks, 2015).

According to a study 67% of people feel deceived when they find out that a brand has sponsored an article they have read. It also revealed the impact that native advertising has on the host site, showing that 59% of respondents regard news sites as less credible if they host native adverts (Campbell & Marks, 2015). Thus, publishers have to be careful and selective of the native adverts they engage with if they want to maintain their integrity (Business Standard, 2016). Even though news organisations have vowed for independence, they are not completely free from advertising support and critics fear they are thus are prone to bias (Carlson, 2015).  

Summing up

The movement in the digital space is bringing about changes for marketers as well as publishers. The economic outlook and the potential that native advertising offers for news organisations can explain why they choose to engage in it (Carlson, 2015), even if it might lower their recognition among readers (Campbell and Marks, 2015). The target audience is now more empowered than ever to select what kind of brand and messages they want to interact with online.

The previous discussion showed that it is not only difficult for brands which want to advertise their products online, but also for news organisations who want to keep the readers' interest. Both have to deal with the new consumer empowerment that the online movement brings. As examples have shown that marketers have to be careful how to go about using native advertising strategies in their brand communication. While it can be a very successful tool in maintaining the target audiences interest, there can also be the risk of leaving consumers feeling betrayed. This proves to be especially difficult for the news outlets, which come under scrutiny when they are perceived as deceiving their readers. Advertisers and journalists have to find the balance between marketing their messages to consumers and providing them with relevant content, thus ensuring a benefit for all three parties. 










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