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The worlds of advertising and editorial, once separated by a metaphorical (if not literal) wall at all media companies, are now blurring in very strange ways. In fact, let’s be honest, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the two. Even the marketing jargon used to describe the new genre that’s part advertising/part content is difficult to decipher.
Native advertising vs. sponsored content
For example, take the terms “native advertising” and “sponsored content.” These days, the two terms are basically used interchangeably by everybody. Technically, “sponsored content” is a subset of “native advertising,” which is used to describe all advertising that resembles editorial content.
At one time, native advertising labored under a number of burdensome requirements, like the need to avoid mentioning a specific call to action and the need to use different design elements so that the casual reader would immediately recognize something “funny” about the content and realize that it wasn’t produced by the publication’s editorial board.
Remember the advertorial?
You can think of the humble advertorial that appeared in magazines and newspapers (back in the day when people actually read magazines and newspapers) as the forerunner of today’s “sponsored content.” Remember the days when you’d be leafing through some incredibly highbrow publication like The Economist and come across a two-page spread touting the investment potential of some backwater, developing economy?
If you looked hard enough, you’d see some kind of disclaimer that the content was produced by that nation’s economic development office and not by the magazine. But it was content that was designed to appeal to the type of reader who might decide to invest in emerging market stocks one day. And, as they say, once you see it, you can’t un-see it. (Years from now, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having invested in some oil-rich dictatorship with a huge stock market!)
The disappearing wall between advertising and editorial
Flash forward to today, and it’s a lot harder to distinguish between “real content” and “native advertising.” You might say, in fact, that native advertising has gone completely native. Gone are all the restrictions on what native advertising can and cannot include. In fact, all the big media publications – including the very highbrow New York Times – have created what they typically call “content studios” where brands can have access to all the design elements used by the media publication itself. The wall between advertising and editorial is gone.
The result? You get content from the biggest tech companies right smack dab in the middle of the biggest tech blogs. You get brands creating content about things like “What Type of Game of Thrones Character Are You?,” which can then be posted on a site like BuzzFeed, all in the hope that it will go viral. See? It’s content – but it’s also advertising.
Advertisers, be careful what you wish for
The dirty little secret is that nobody trusts advertisers these days. People ignore banner ads. They instinctively click any box of a pop-up ad to make it go away. So advertisers are doing everything in their power to resemble content producers. They even call their practice “content marketing, “ because it’s using content to market.
But here’s the thing – the situation with native advertising (and all of its spin-offs, like sponsored content) is getting to be so murky that people are starting to lose faith in the original content producers! If you’re being cynical (and it’s hard not to be cynical if you spend more than a few minutes on a site like BuzzFeed), you might say that the big media companies made a Faustian pact.
Yes, they did a deal with the devil, and now they’re having to deal with all the unintended consequences, like “fake news” articles that are created by fake websites claiming to be real websites and posting fake stories about real people.
The latest fake news scandal should be a warning signal to brands. As long as you’re creating advertising that’s clearly advertising – and you’re marking it as such, nobody is really going to care. That’s what brands do – they advertise. But it’s another thing entirely when the advertising is designed to “trick” readers (there’s no nice way to describe this, really) into buying something that they think comes with the stamp of approval of a trusted media brand.