Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The World Wide Web

magazines

(Photo: Julija Sapic/Shutterstock)

This Is Not an Ad

• January 16, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Julija Sapic/Shutterstock)

Despite the recent commotion, native advertising’s been around for a long time.

Last Wednesday, The New York Times launched a redesigned website that features a simpler interface, faster loading times, an option to browse comments while scrolling through an article, and other tweaks meant to make the act of reading the news more delightful. While these upgrades are neither terribly innovative nor unique, perhaps the most noteworthy change to accompany the relaunch is the inclusion of native advertising—a first for nytimes.com.

Scattered about the site are still traditional banner ads powered by Google and little boxes that direct readers to URLs devoted to Capital One or Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, but now readers will also come across articles paid for and posted by Dell Inc.

In one of the sponsored ads titled “Will Millennials Ever Completely Shun the Office?,” for example, author Kim Anderson, who, according to her bio, is a New York-based freelancer with a B.A. from Stanford, outlines the reasons behind young people’s ambivalence toward commuting to work. Besides a clear disclaimer wrapped in a blue bar at the top of the article and a note at the bottom stating that the above was produced by the Times‘ advertising department in collaboration with Dell without any involvement from the newspaper’s editorial staff, the content itself looks and feels just like a regular, non-sponsored article. It has a headline, a picture, a byline, and reported information that relies on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics and a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. While the article discusses the transforming power of technology, it never mentions Dell by name.

A study found that many people are confused about the difference between paid and unpaid content, and 50 percent of those surveyed didn’t even understand what the word “sponsor” means.

Last December, in an attempt to quell any qualms over the potential smudging of traditional content with branded content through the introduction of native advertising, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. sent a letter to his employees explaining that there would be a “strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads.”

Except, this is nothing new. Various forms of native advertising—also known as advertorials—have been around for a long time. The Guardian reports that in 1917 the Federal Trade Commission settled a first-of-its-kind case with Muensen Speciality Co. for disguising an ad for a vacuum cleaner as a positive newspaper review. In 1941, the New Yorker published an ad for Thomas’ Protein Bread that, at a glance, looks deceptively similar to a regular article. Then, in 2013, the publication posted an online article describing how the cloud can benefit the field of pediatrics, presented by IBM. The New York Times itself has been publishing native ads in its print edition for decades now.

According to a July 2013 study conducted by the Online Publishers Association—whose members include Hearst, Condé Nast, and the New York Times—73 percent of its members already use online native advertising, and 17 percent were considering employing the strategy by the end of the year. In other words, if native advertising was ever an anomaly, it’s now pretty standard.

THE STRONGEST ARGUMENT AGAINST branded content is that it’s just that: branded content, designed to seamlessly fit into the context of a publication. Its success depends on capturing the eyeballs of inattentive readers as they skim through a site perhaps unaware of what’s sponsored and what’s not. The more an ad is distinguished as an ad, the less likely a reader is to read it because, well, it’s an ad.

Last December, the FTC ran a one-day workshop titled Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?, which reportedly “raised more questions than it answered.” At the conference, David Franklyn, director of the McCarthy Institute for Intellectual Property and Technology Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, presented a study that found many people are confused about the difference between paid and unpaid content, and that 50 percent of those surveyed didn’t even understand what the word “sponsor” means.

And who could forget the immense backlash The Atlantic received in early 2013 after posting a sponsored piece on Scientology that admired the movement’s steady growth? The ad was removed within 12 hours, and the publication issued an apology that began with the sentence, “We screwed up.”

To Pam Horan, however, who serves as president of the Online Publishers Association, sponsored articles can benefit everyone if they’re just as valuable and informative to the reader as the non-sponsored content surrounding them.

“When publishers collaborate with marketers to develop these experiences, they are lending their knowledge of their readers—and the content they value—to ensure that the consumer receives relevant and compelling native ads,” Horan wrote in an email. “But it must be done in a transparent and authentic way in order to maintain trust, which is an essential component of publisher’s relationships with their readers.”

Native advertising or not, newspapers and magazines have always maintained a complicated relationship with the brands that finance them. So perhaps the most interesting thing to watch in the coming months and years will be how advertisers adjust to the public adjusting to native ads online. Once readers get used to identifying them—and as they become more widespread, you’d imagine they will—then what? An online native ad without the ambiguity becomes the Web equivalent of a full-page magazine ad. Unless, of course, ad firms can find some miraculous way of providing prose that both promotes their brand and leaves the reader feeling as though she wasn’t duped into reading an ad. Then, well, check back with me in a couple of years.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

More From Paul Hiebert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.