A Brief History of Native Advertising

Publishers and brands are running full-speed towards the latest marketing trend: native advertising. It’s being heralded as this new and groundbreaking phenomenon, but native advertising is far from a new strategy—it’s just that it’s being transformed by a new digital frontier.

This isn’t the first time that native advertising has been rocked by a new form or media, however. For over a century, brands have been crafting their native ad strategy to fit new ways to reach people—from print, to radio, to TV, and beyond.

1900s: Content and context

  • Publicity events were coordinated with media coverage so that brands could run supplementary paid advertisement adjacent to them, expanding upon the story.
  • Example: Clamor over car races run by hobbyists paired well for Ford’s automobile ads.

1910s: Editorial + advertisement = advertorial

  • Brands began running ads with longform copy in newspapers and magazines, telling brand stories with an editorial edge.
  • Example: Theodore MacManus wrote Cadillac’s “The Penalty of Leadership” story and placed it as an ad in The Saturday Evening Post.

1920s: Branded radio

  • Music and stories, sans illustration and copy, were created and broadcasted by radio stations into people’s homes—free of charge.
  • Example: Westinghouse manufactured RCA radios and funded KDKA radio station to wirelessly “air” programs locally, as well as nationally, via RCA’s subsidiary, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

1930s: Sponsored radio programs

  • Since free-form radio couldn’t sustain itself, the American Newspaper Publishers Association declared in 1933 that scheduled radio programs could be published if brands paid for their spots.
  • Example: General Mills’ Wheaties sponsored radio baseball broadcasts and serials, such as “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.

1940s–1950s: Branded TV and the soap opera

    • Audio and moving image content merged for in-home consumption.
    • Brands produced regular television programs to market their goods to a targeted audience.
    • Example: P&G underwrote both radio and television drama series to market their soap, hence the term “soap operas.” Bulova, Sun Oil, Lever Brothers, and P&G signed on as the first sponsors of the commercial telecast

  • John Glenn’s orbital space flight in 1962 was seen by 135 million viewers, turning television into the mass medium of the day.
  • Shorter commercial slots were produced to promote brands in between scheduled programming.
  • Example: Kodak’s Instamatic & Flashcube 60-second commercial was a “how-to” video set at a mod party, providing contextual entertainment that supplemented TV programming.

1980s: Infomercials!

  • Broadcast TV diversified their offering and served up 30-minute TV advertorials.
  • Example: “Paid programming” ads ran during non-prime time and popularized “As Seen On TV” products like Soloflex and Life Alert.

1990s–2000s: Search ads and empire-building

  • The Internet happens! Search ads, the grandaddy of digital native ads, propelled the first generation of tech empires.
  • Example: Search engines like AOL, Google, MSN (now Bing), and Yahoo promoted company websites alongside search results, leveraging consumer intent to drive business results at mass scale. That allowed companies like Google to spread their power far and wide.

2010s: Sponsored content dominance

  • A new wave of digital media companies like Mashable and BuzzFeed largely eschew display advertising for sponsored content that helps brand partners craft content that appeals to their audiences.
  • Traditional news sources like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes join in on the fun, catering to advertisers by crafting sponsored content throughout their editorial, social media, video, and interstitial digital properties.

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Image by Joe Haupt

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