Why We’ll All Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Native Ads

In January, the Church of Scientology ran a sponsored post on The Atlantic’s website. It read like a news story, but skewed clearly in support the controversial religious group, and critics said that The Atlantic hadn’t done enough to highlight that it was sponsored content.

And, immediately, the native advertising backlash had begun. Some wondered if this was proof that native advertising was an unforgivable violation of the church-and-state separation between advertising and editorial.

In the aftermath, it was pretty easy to dismiss those concerns as the handwringing of journalism ethicists willfully ignorant of the fact that modern publishers need sponsored content to survive and thrive. Plus, The Atlantic had obviously forgotten the golden rule of native advertising: Only publish content that’s up to your traditional editorial standards and won’t piss readers off.

But when Andrew Sullivan, one of the most savvy and respected entrepreneurs in digital journalism, jumped into the fray against native advertising, it was worth taking a closer look at the fracas.

Sullivan’s target was BuzzFeed, the darling of native advertising thanks to the viral-traffic-friendly sponsored listicles that it sells to brands for upwards of $100,000 in packages of four or five. Sullivan took BuzzFeed to task in a post on The Dish, and then confronted Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith at a Social Media Week panel. The crux of his message: “You’re clearly trying to trick people.”

In his post, Sullivan tackled three BuzzFeed practices. The first was BuzzFeed’s standard sponsored-post practice, in which the posts are clearly marked with a yellow background and brand byline. Sullivan found this to be an ethically fuzzy but not obviously line-crossing practice. Yet, to give a different perspective, if you can’t tell that one of the posts below is sponsored by Virgin Mobile, the only thing that’s fuzzy is your vision.

Sullivan’s one very valid complaint? BuzzFeed’s tendency to fail to mark sponsored posts that are linked in sidebars, particularly when there’s an image scroll-over involved. But like with The Atlantic’s Scientology gaffe, this is an issue that’s easily corrected by implementing a strict rule and sticking to it: Clearly mark sponsored posts everywhere that they appear.

It’s hyperbolic to say that think that native advertising has an “existential problem.” It’s less a problem and more the fact that publishers are still figuring out the rules around native advertising. It’s only just now becoming a widespread practice, and publishers need some time — and some wiggle room for screw-ups — before they figure out how to do it just right.

And they know they have to figure it out, because both brands and publishers have realized the shortcomings of traditional banner ads. And for all the handwringing in the media blogosphere, readers don’t seem to mind so much. Virgin Mobile’s sponsored posts on Buzzfeed regularly outperform editorial staffers (although sometimes with a boost from paid social placements) and some of Refinery29’s most popular pieces of content have been collaborations with brands.

When journalism experiences major changes, people fret. We saw this with the rise of bloggers, and then social media (and, decades ago, it happened with the advent of TV reporting too). It’s good that concerns about native advertising are being raised when they’re relevant so that the whole industry can learn from them (and mistakes can be corrected). It’s likely that standards and general trade guidelines will develop. And then, in a couple of years, native advertising will likely be as innocuous as promoted tweets, Facebook ads, text message promotions, or any of those other forms of media that seemed just as foreign not so long ago.

Image by Borislav Bajkic /

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