According to a 2014 Pew Research report, the lines between public relations/marketing and news are becoming increasingly blurred, with news giants like The New York Times and The Washington Post jumping on the sponsored content bandwagon.
What is Native Advertising?
Native Advertising, also called sponsored content, describes paid content to promote a product, but produced to look somewhat like a news report. Before the digital age, these were called advertorials—magazine or newspaper ads with headlines that were meant to look deceptively like actual news. But with consumers’ increasing reliance on the internet, so-called “sponsored content” became popular. Now when you browse through your local TV station’s website, next to the latest weather report you might see a mortgage company ad with a newsy-sounding headline like, “Why Are High Earners Living Paycheck to Paycheck?”
The Problem with Native Advertising
The main complaint about sponsored content is that it often looks so much like a real news story that some readers might be confused. This is especially true with the latest trend—the advertiser pays the broadcaster to write a headline and content, so it sounds more like a legitimate news story.
How Obvious is Paid Content?
Many native advertising pieces are easily identified as such. As a general rule, any headline that includes the words “shocking”, “can’t believe” or “jaw-dropping” is probably paid content. Many of these ads are also eye-catching, with blinking lights, dancing pumpkins or elves, or badly edited before-and-after photos. One could argue that most consumers could easily discern between a legitimate piece of journalism and a dancing pumpkin ad, regardless of the headline.
However, the move toward more sophisticated content means the distinction is sometimes more difficult, even for skeptical consumers. Take the earlier headline about high-earners living paycheck to paycheck, for example. In the current economy, many broadcasters have produced legitimate packages about the increasing numbers of high earners who find themselves in financial distress due to an underwater mortgage, job loss, etc. This could be one of those stories, but if you click on the link you’ll find yourself routed to a website that attempts to sell you financial planning services.
With a decrease in over-the-top headlines and low-quality pictures and a move toward more professional-looking paid content, the confusion is increasing for consumers. A recent Digiday article cites a study in which 62% of respondents didn’t realize they were looking at an ad when shown “sponsored content” for a cheese company.
How Labeling Affects Consumers’ Interpretation of Native Advertising
The Triplelift study in the Digiday article goes on to show that the way sites label their paid content affects consumer confusion. “Advertisement” was the most clear in alerting readers that they were viewing an ad, with almost half of respondents (48.5%) correctly identifying paid content. “Presented by” and “promoted by” were most confusing, with only 15.5% and 11.2%, respectively, identifying the paid content as ads.
This piece of data is of particular concern to broadcasters, whose TV news segments are often “presented by” an advertiser. For example, the sports segment of your local five o’clock news broadcast might be sponsored by a local sporting goods store. That doesn’t mean the store is paying for any particular content; they’re simply paying to sponsor that part of the broadcast. Consumers who both watch TV news and read about it online might think the same holds true for “sponsored” content on a TV station’s website.
Not Just an Issue for Broadcasters’ Websites
That brings us to another trend in sponsored content: paid advertising on news shows made to look like legitimate interviews. A recent Boston Globe article describes a 10 o’clock news broadcast, which included an interview with the founder of a razor company. The interviewer asked the founder questions, as he would have in a legitimate news gathering situation, but the razor company paid for the time, and the segment ran in the commercial break slot.
The problem highlighted in the Globe article stems from a lack of identification of the “reporter” in the segment. He was not identified as working for the razor company, and as a result, viewers, especially those new to the telecast, might not have realized he was biased in his approach to the story. The article also points out that even a reporter working for a broadcaster might soften his or her approach to interviewing a subject about paid content, lobbing softball questions and avoiding issues that could make the company look bad.