Native Advertising Online: the Ethos and Ethics of Advertorials

Has this ever happened to you? You are reading an online article on a trusted new site and while reading, you notice that the article seems suspiciously invested in promoting a particular product or person in its rhetoric. Then you scroll down to the bottom of the page and see a “Sponsored Content” disclaimer, explaining your suspicions. You have unwittingly fallen into the trap of native advertising.

Native advertising, also referred to as advertorials, are ads and sponsored content which mimic the style and delivery of the content on the site they exist on. Native advertisements are hardly a new advertising tactic, nor is it a phenomenon that’s specific to the internet. The usage of native advertising has a long history, beginning with advertisements disguised as articles in magazines and eventually spreading to branded radio, TV, news programs, and infomercials. In fact, soap operas get their namesake from soap companies heavily underwriting daytime drama shows to market to housewives.

However, more recently, as media companies have begun making transitions from more traditional mediums to online formats, native advertising has grown more prevalent and more uncomfortably noticeable. Entire articles featured prominently on news sites reveal themselves to be paid content. Posts that are actually ads may appear in your feed or on your wall on Facebook. Some savvy marketers craft ads that look like memes, which are then peppered into meme feeds on subreddits. One could even make the case that corporate Twitter accounts are another form of native advertising, with accounts roasting each other and squabbling like goofy characters in Twitter threads. All of it is here to trick you into consuming advertisements, just to generate ad revenue for the host site. This recent spread has come with its fair share of criticism and hatred, including questions about how a news site’s credibility is affected by these ads.

So why are native ads over the place when they seem to fly in the face of journalistic integrity? Since the invention of news distribution, making money while truthfully reporting the news has been a balancing act. This balancing between impartial reporting and meeting their financial needs has become even more difficult as media companies are forced to shift to the internet, where money is made not by selling ad space for a flat fee, but by farming clicks on generated ads instead.

In the realm of news on the internet, there is no way to as effectively streamline ad viewership like you can on traditional platforms. There are no commercial breaks or full-page ads online to sell to companies, only ads specially generated by ad companies appearing in banner ads. Unfortunately for news sites, these banner ads are some of the least profitable, least trafficked ads on the internet. With incredibly poor view times, click-throughs, and with ad blocker software popular among internet users, banner ads are hardly lucrative forms of advertisement. As such, companies must use more devious and underhanded methods to attract ad revenue: advertorials, which advertises to the consumer while they are trying to get reliable content.

On the surface, advertorials aren’t evil. In fact, native advertising seems like the next logical step for online businesses to take. After all, having consistent advertisers and ad revenue is a critical part of maintaining the autonomy of a news organization. Without consistent ad revenue streams from traditional banner ads, news sites are left with few options for making money. Some news sites go the route of using paid subscriptions to substitute the loss of ad revenue, but this drives away potential readership who can’t be bothered to pay a fee. Some news sites get a patron company or person to foot their bankroll, but these sites often find their content pressured into bias by their patrons, which is a major threat to the credibility and integrity of the news site.

However, the native ad solution for making money online comes with its own baggage, which comes in the form of blurring the lines between advertisement and journalism. The usage of advertorials in one’s website can heavily dampen an audience’s opinion of the credibility of the website. In other words, when people get fooled by fake articles that are actually ads, their perception of the site’s ethos declines and their ability to trust information coming from said site drops.

Ethos is an appeal of basic rhetoric which concerning the trustworthiness, credibility, or the integrity of character of the speaker (or website in this case). A good appeal to ethos involves gaining the trust of your audience and convincing them to see you and your arguments as being credible and trustworthy. When a speaker is lacking proper appeals to ethos, the audience’s perception of their credibility decreases.

Native advertising and advertorials planted within articles on a news website diminishes the site’s ethos appeals in the eyes of some. The inclusion of these ads show the willingness of a news site to prioritize commercializing their content and further news commodification over actually reporting the news. A massive example of this issue is when The Atlantic published a paid advertorial promoting the Church of Scientology on their front page. Readers became upset with this article due to “fears that native advertising weakens the credibility of news sites.” When a trusted news site sells out to advertisers by putting out advertorials, it can feel disingenuous to the character of the site and the integrity of their journalism. Also, using native ads indicates that the news site is willing to fool their audiences into consuming ads for financial gain. If news sites can get away with this, how can the audience trust that the site won’t fool them with false news stories?

Critics of native advertising are typically those who are highly offended by being constantly marketed to online in the first place. Those who dislike native advertising can see beyond the veil of medium mimicry and detect the underlying marketing message underneath, which will turn people off from the article no matter how well it’s written. This aversion stems from the belief that advertisements and news content should be strictly separated to maintain truthfulness and journalistic integrity. A prime example of this comes in the form of The New York Times article “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” This article from 2018 was written as an advertisement for the release of the second season of the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black.” The article is clearly labeled as a “Paid Post” and prominently features imagery from the show in the article. However, the article’s content focuses on discussing the issues and inequalities that exist in the female prison system using factual evidence and does so in a journalistic and respectable manner. However, even with native journalism handled in the best way possible, it is hard not to feel weirded out by its underlying message. As John Oliver says in his take on the issue, even a well-made native ad is still an trying to sell you something, a fact that rubs some people the wrong way.

However, before we write off native advertisements as an evil that is plaguing the modern journalism landscape, we need to remember why companies use these types of ads in the first place: they work. Advertisers pay big money for native ads because lots of people actually don’t mind this form of advertising. Many people prefer ads which mimic the medium they’re set in rather than being assaulted by a distracting banner ad. Seeing a product promoted in a trusted news source boosts the reader’s positive perception of said product. Additionally, if the ad is well made enough, people may not actually pick up on the underlying marketing message.

We must keep in mind that native advertisements are primarily used to secure the funds needed to keep the website alive, not necessarily because the website is explicitly trying to exploit people. After all, this is one of the best ways to make money with a news site on the internet. Perhaps before condemning any use of native advertising in an online news source, we should reconsider our perception of internet ethos. The internet has changed how we approach credibility and trustworthiness when it comes to sites like Wikipedia. Perhaps we should reevaluate whether or not native ads actually diminish the credibility of websites.

I dislike native ads as much as the next guy. I don’t like the feeling of realizing I just read half an article that is trying to sell me something. However, if this is one of the only ways for news sites to secure funding for their operations, maybe we should be okay with it. These types of articles are helping keep news sites free and independent, so if a few articles are written to advertise a product here and there, it is worth the bothersomeness. They are using these ads out of necessity, not because they want to pull a fast one on you.

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