Native advertising and advertorials: Apples and not-quite-apples2014-05-21
I grew up with boxers. Boxers are great dogs. They learn quickly and they’re incredibly friendly. What they are not is Old English Bulldogs. Nor are they Bullenbeisers. (That would be impossible. Bullenbeisers are extinct.) However, Boxers are the result of breeding the two back in the late 1800s.
I mention this because I have been hearing a lot of people who, when exposed to native advertising, say, “Oh, that’s just an advertorial.”
I got that response again when I shared Netflix’s native ad, “TV Got Better”—developed with Wired—which is utterly brilliant. Some have called it the “Snow Fall” of native advertising, an allusion to The New York Times article that demonstrated the power digital media can bring to storytelling.
For others, though, “TV Got Better” was just an advertorial
It’s rarely worth the effort to get embroiled in a semantic debate. But making native advertising (aka sponsored content) a synonym for an advertorial can limit our thinking about native advertising’s potential, and ultimately about the results we get from it.
When The New York Times abruptly fired its executive editor, Jill Abramson, some speculated it was partly over her resistance to native advertising, a battle between the editorial and business sides of the publication. Advertorials have been around since the mid-1940s and burst into the public’s attention when Mobil Public Affairs Vice President Herb Schertz starting placing them in newspapers as a way to get the company’s views across during the 1970s energy crisis.
It was Schmertz’s belief that companies had to be proactive in their participation in discussions about issues that could affect their reputation. His first advertorials appeared in on The New York Times’ op-ed page but quickly found a weekly home in the same block of space newspapers’ ad sales teams sold for display ads. Rather than tout the latest motor oil or the benefits of filling your car with Mobil gasoline, Schmertz used the space to spark discussion about a broad range of topics, from the environment to regulation. Schmertz referred to the practice as “the honorable act of pamphleteering.”
Just as there are similarities between Old English Bulldogs and Boxers, there are similarities between advertorials and native ads. Most important, both are closer to PR than advertising. The most important difference, on the other hand, is that advertorials are confined to designated advertising space. They have to fit the same dimensions as a President’s Day mattress sale ad. They must be printed in the same space on the page reserved for advertising. There was never much chance a reader might confuse an advertorial with original content from the publication in which it appeared. If nothing else, a bounding box sets it apart from other content.
Article-driven advertising sections—common in magazines like The Economist—can also be labeled advertorials, though generally they’re just called advertising supplements. They’re easy to detect, thanks to the ADVERTISING SUPPLEMENT label at the top of every page. Most publications have policies rejecting ads in any form that masquerade as articles produced by the paper’s reporters.
There’s no question that native advertising has its roots planted firmly in the advertorial, but that doesn’t make them the same thing any more than flying a kite is the same as kite surfing. Kite surfing has its origins in kite flying (and surfing, of course). But nobody looking at someone kite-surfing would say, “Oh, he’s just flying a kite.”
The nature of a native ad, thanks to the digital platforms on which they are built, doesn’t always have to fit proscribed dimensions (like banner ads), and they can assume any format that works online: audio, video, text, images, you name it.
The goal is not to use old-fashioned advertising space as a platform for a message, but rather to infuse an existing publication with content that is as interesting (if not morso) as what the publication’s editorial staff is delivering, and as easy to find. It is in the publication’s interest to accommodate the many forms of native advertising, since many see it as the financial savior of the medium. It’s in the interest of the institution buying the native ad because of the unique opportunity to expose readers to compelling content.
It is in nobody’s interest to trick readers into thinking a native ad is a run-of-the-mill ad, since banner advertising hasn’t exactly been a resounding success. On the other hand, it’s also not in anyone’s interest to trick readers into thinking a native ad is not an ad at all. If readers can’t tell the difference, the publication’s credibility suffers. (Interestingly, I don’t believe there was much concern that advertorial’s could damage a newspaper’s reputation.) It’s equally important to the content’s sponsor that readers not think it’s third-party reporting. If customers can’t tell who sponsored the content, it’s tough to use the content as a step on a customer journey.
There is even a class of native advertising; Edelman’s Steve Rubel calls it “paid co-creation,” in which the publication actually creates the content using its own editorial staff, with the brand paying for it. An example is the Creative Ideas section of the Lowe’s website, all the content of which is produced by a unit of the publisher Meredith under contract from Lowe’s.
Paid syndication is another of Rubel’s categories of native advertising, in which the advertiser pays the media company to run its content right along with the publication’s original reporting. Within this category, you find content that might remind you of a magazine fold-out section, content introduced in its own space (a dedicated column on the right-hand side of the page), and some that mimic the publication’s original reporting. The list of related links at the end of an article may have been paid for. Even sponsored stories on Facebook fit the category, since it appears right there in the news feed, just like anything posted by one of your friends.
Rubel’s third category of native advertising, paid integration, which more closely resembles product placement. On Buzzfeed, for example, a lot of the listicles you’ll find are sponsored by a paying advertiser and reflect the brand’s values or messages, yet it’s just like other listicles you’ll find on the site.
(On GigaOm, Jonathan Glick and Joshue Neckes offered a different perspective, dissecting tactical approaches to native ads. Here you’ll see other kinds of native advertising that differ dramatically from an advertorial. The “tourist ad” is probably most like an advertorial in that it fits in a defined space, such as the right-hand column of a page of Atlantic where regular old advertising can also be positioned. When Outbrain delivers a list of links related to the story you just read, which Rolling Stone or CNN lists at the end of the article, it’s hard to squeeze that concept into the advertorial definition.)
The “TV Got Better” ad is an example of what native advertising at its best can be. It’s clearly labeled as a Netflix-sponsored piece. It’s as compelling and interesting as anything else you might find on a Wired site. It fits no preconceived idea of what an ad is. And it’s nothing anybody would have dreamed up if their thinking had been limited to an advertorial strategy rather than a native advertising strategy.