Native advertising and advertorials: Apples and not-quite-apples

Posted on May 21, 2014 11:11 am by | Content | Advertising

Boxers aren't bulldogsI 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.

A Mobil AdvertorialIt 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.

Let's Go Fly A KiteThere’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.

TV Got Better



  • 1.So Shel, I do agree with you that there is an element of semantics about this. I also understand that the term 'native advertising' is now well enough established that poor old Kind Canute would struggle to turn it back.

    However, as one of the people who made the comparison with advertorials I feel that I should provide a comment to what is a very well written post.

    I'm afraid I am still of the view that 'native advertising' is nothing more than a new name for an old concept. Sure the channels, format and media have changed, but it's still - when you boil it down - purchasing the right to put commercial messages/content alongside editorial (or mostly) editorial content.

    The 'TV got better' ad(vertorial) is a perfect example. If that was run back in the glory days of print it would have told a similar story but in just words and pictures. Today, it takes advantage of all the latest digital capabilities from video, to animation, sound, and great content.

    It's a great example of commercial storytelling and I've shared it with many people as such. But really is it more than 'Digital Advertorial'?

    Not really.

    But hey it isn't the first and won't be the last time we feel the need to invent a new term for an existing concept. And that's OK. As is our ability to point that fact out, from time to time.

    Thanks again

    Tom Murphy | May 2014 | Redmond, WA

  • 2.I really appreciate the comment, Tom, and your point of view. But if I accepted what you're saying, I'd have to also agree that kite surfing really IS just flying a kite. In some respects it is, of course, but on the whole, it's more than just that.

    Shel Holtz | May 2014

  • 3.Well I didn't expect you to agree and that's all good. :-)

    But I would point out that I'm not sure the kite analogy holds water, after all there are different objectives in flying a kite or kite surfing, however the ultimate objective of advertorials and 'native advertising' are not dissimilar. Yes 'native advertising' - as people define it - provides new ways to capture and potentially engage people thanks to the new tools and channels, but ultimately they have the same objectives such as reaching, informing, educating, engaging etc. a target audience.

    However, a good discussion! Thanks again

    Tom Murphy | May 2014 | Redmond, WA

  • 4.It's worth pointing out that Wikipedia has a list for each:

    Native advertising:


    In the Native Advertising listing,you'll find this under "examples:"Advertorial in printed media demonstrate native advertising where bloggers are established as credible authorities but in fact are recommending brands they are paid to recommend and by definition are conflicted."

    In other words, the editors see advertorials as a subset of native advertising.

    Shel Holtz | May 2014 | Concord, CA

  • 5.Editors are always right :)

    Thanks Shel, I'll definitely have a read. I'm always learning!


    Tom Murphy | May 2014 | Redmond, WA

  • 6.It's definitely just one example, Tom. Scanning my feeds today, I came upon this Adage piece on native advertising in India. Note the comparison to "Special Advertising Sections:"

    The reporter noted that these sections are still published, "but they've been mostly overshadowed by "native advertising" (or "sponsored content"), which is basically the same thing, but less clinical-sounding. The, ahem, "native advertising revolution" created an environment where brands increasingly behave like publishers, and publishers increasingly defer to brand desires."

    The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) even has an official native advertising playbook, produced by a native advertising task force.

    A Google search of the term reveals about 850,000 results. It really is a thing!

    Shel Holtz | May 2014

  • 7.This turned my head, coming from you Shel. Especially given how much you've written on ethics. You mention ethics briefly, in this post but don't dwell on it, beyond pointing out the pitfalls.

    Yet that's the problem. The native ads I've see are paid media masquerading as earned media. The entire concept, the "native" part is scientifically designed to help a foreign object blend it so that it appears natural.

    That sure seems deceiving to me.

    Frank Strong | May 2014 | United States

  • 8.Frank, when Richard Edelman addressed native advertising last June during his keynote at the IABC World Conference, he made the point that the PR industry had a small window in which to take ownership of native advertising in order to use it well, before advertisers got their hands on it. Edelman is behind a move to ensure ethical practices apply. I'm not suggesting there's nobody trying to be deceitful with native advertising, but I'm Hopeful best practices will prevail. A recent study found the public is generally fine with native advertising -- but that it's also important that they be able to identify the sponsor of the content AND validate information through third-party content (see the report in my Friday Wrap #102).

    Shel Holtz | May 2014

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