The Trouble With Native Advertising

Wired has just released a new piece of ‘sponsor content’ on its site. Backed by Netflix, it explores the changing nature of TV. It is a dynamic piece, though flags up many of the problems inherent to native advertising…

Wired has just released a new piece of ‘sponsor content’ on its site. Backed by Netflix, it explores the changing nature of TV. It is a dynamic piece, though flags up many of the problems inherent to native advertising…

Native advertising – content that appears like editorial but has been paid for by advertisers – has been hailed as one of the saviours of publishing for some time now, though interesting examples of how it might be used are few and far between. In reality, most native advertising has been in the form of articles that look exactly like other editorial on a site bar the discreet addition of the words ‘sponsored’ or ‘branded’. For readers, engaging with news sites today therefore requires close attention, to avoid finding yourself halfway down a story that is actually an ad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to criticism. Speaking in a recent interview on Digiday, journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan described native advertising as journalism ‘surrendering’. “Advertising snuck into the editorial pages in a way that advertising has always wanted to do,” he says. “It used to be an axiom that the job of journalists was to be resistant to that and sustain the clear distinction between advertising and journalism. One side has effectively surrendered.”

So how can publishers use native advertising to fund their other, non-commercial reporting without their credibility being entirely lost in the process? The Wired piece, online here, hints at a solution, though ultimately still falls foul of the native ad problem.

The answer it suggests is in the creation of an ‘experience’ for readers, one that stands apart from an ordinary online article, so is therefore clearly signposted as ‘sponsored’, but is interesting enough for people to want to engage with anyway.

Wired’s ‘TV Got Better’ article opens with a flat page that shatters dramatically – like a TV screen breaking – as viewers scroll down. It then mixes a long piece of text, written by author and anthropologist Grant McCracken, with charts, video and audio, all displayed seamlessly as the reader continues to scroll. It is a nice, if not especially radical, piece of editorial design.

It is in this lack of a wow-factor that the problems begin though. The design is undoubtedly good but is it interesting enough in itself to share? Similarly the content, while well-written and thorough, again falls into the sponsored article trap. With all native advertising, the question has to be asked whether the magazine would have written this piece anyway and benefits in any way other than financially by it being on its site. Here it seems unlikely – the changing nature of TV is a subject that has been well covered in recent times, and while it might be valuable to Netflix to see that revisited in detail in Wired, it feels less stimulating for the reader. Again, is it an article that they would share?

The holy grail in native advertising, like that of most advertising nowadays, lies in the creation of a piece of work that people will pass on to others. That despite knowing that it is advertising, they will want to share it anyway because something about it – the craft, the content, whatever – is different enough to be surprising and interesting. This is a high bar to reach – the work has to be on a par with the best of web design and content out there, as interesting say as the recent, award-winning National Geographic Serengeti Lion site or the work of NFB/interactive – but to offer a rewarding experience for readers, while maintaining the reputation of publishers, is what native advertising needs to aim for.

Read the Wired/Netflix piece here.

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