Blurred Lines: Will native advertising ruin journalism or be its saviour?

It’s discomforting to realise that you have been conned into reading sponsored content.

ByManisha Pande
Blurred Lines: Will native advertising ruin journalism or be its saviour?
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You’ve seen plenty of “sponsored content” in print and television media, and your latest Bollywood Friday release. Heck, you’ve seen so much of it that you are now pretty good at distinguishing between editorial content and advertising, even as news organisations devise ways to blur the line.

In the United States, the term “native advertising” gained currency with the advent of new media organisations like Buzzfeed, Gawker and so on, which replaced pesky display ads with ones that behave like regular articles. (There’s a little listicle on 10 examples of Buzzfeed doing native advertising.)

By 2014, though, legacy publishers like The New York Times and The Guardian took to it. The spend on native ads is set to grow to $21 billion in 2018 — from $4.7 billion in 2013. Many publishers testify that native advertising is helping them bring in the money.

The practice, though, has divided journalists. You have voices like that of Andrew Sullivan – founder of the subscription-based ad-free blog — The Dish, who feel native advertising is essentially journalism surrendering to advertising.

Media critic Bob Garfield in The Guardian called it a “neat trick” that relies on fooling the reader.

Then, there are those like Brian Morrissey, editor-in-chief of Digiday, who feel it’s naïve for journalists to assume they can remain aloof from the real industry.

Commenting on a face-off between Sullivan and Buzzfeed Editor Ben Smith on native advertising at Social Media Week back in 2013, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic strikes a middle note:

In retrospect, I wish both sides conceded one final point to the other. I wish Ben conceded that BuzzFeed advertorials are intimate mimics of BuzzFeed articles — it’s not unreasonable to be confused once or twice — and it creates a tension with transparency. BuzzFeed is trying to make ads that are as charming and delightful as articles, but the more clearly they say WARNING THIS IS A WEB ADVERTISEMENT, the more likely people are to ignore their charming delights, because we have been taught to ignore all Web ads. I wish Andrew had paused in his fiery attack on advertorials and BuzzFeed to acknowledge something simple: Advertising does a good thing in the world. It pays great journalists to find and tell the truth. It’s a tradition worth preserving through both experimentation and severe transparency.

Meanwhile, steering the debate towards newer, trickier territory, Buzzfeed US declared early this month that it will now create native ads for politicians and causes.

Back in India, native advertising is just beginning to catch on with a spurt in the number of new media websites — four online media outlets, CatchNews, The Quint, The Huffington Post and The Wire, went live this year alone. News consumers, though, are all too familiar with print advertorials and product placements in television media.

To be sure, there is no set definition of a native advertisement. Loosely, it is an ad, especially on online platforms, which looks like or blends seamlessly with editorial content. Indeed, it can be defined as “an upgraded version of an old practice”.

With the new media space hotting up in India, it’s going to be interesting to see how online publishers take to native advertising. And whether they can strike a balance between the need to generate revenue and retain credibility and transparency.

ScoopWhoop, often referenced as India’s Buzzfeed, has been experimenting with native advertising for some time now. For example, this article is actually a sponsored post by Colgate.

A similar post on Storypick “15 things in India that are over 100 years old yet have stayed the same” masquerades as a regular listicle but is an ad for Nestle. The 15th point on the list talks about “a food brand that has been an integral part of Indian kitchens since 1912”.

Notably, both ScoopWhoop and Storypick carry a short line right at the end of the piece that alerts the reader about the post being sponsored. The standard practice, though, is to label the native ads as “sponsored”, “promoted”, and so on, in a prominent way so that readers get the context immediately. An inability to do so will and should severely impact the credibility.

In some cases, the brand becomes the byline. Like this listicle in The Huffington Post on “10 Breathtaking Indian Monsoon Destinations” that is a Sony Experia native ad. A line at the end of the listicle urges readers to “check out” Sony Xperia Z3+a waterproof smartphone, in case they are worried about “capturing the memories in rains”.  All of Huffington Post’s native ads come with the “sponsored” label.

The Quint carried its first advertisement this month with its move to “redefine” election coverage. The news outlet is covering the Bihar elections only on smartphones – “no old school cameras, no OB vans…”

Bihar Mobile 2015: 4 Journalists. 4 Smartphones. 243 SeatsThe Quint is covering the Bihar Assembly Elections using only smartphones. This is the first time that such a project has been attempted in India. Armed with selfie sticks and the Quint mic, our reporters get you reports from the ground.Click here to download the Android App now: to our channel for more videos: us on Twitter: us on Facebook:

Posted by The Quint on Thursday, October 15, 2015

A super pops up midway, “Shot on Moto X Play”, as one of the journalists tells the viewer that this is India’s first “mobile election”.

The mobile company’s logo forms part of The Quint’s promotion of its Bihar election campaign.

Every video report states that The Quint’s mobile election coverage is “powered” by Motorola and advertisements of the new Moto mobiles are placed beside the lead paragraph of most Bihar election stories like this.

Ritu Kapur, co-founder of The Quint, states categorically that what they’re doing with Motorola is not native advertising but traditional advertising. “The decision to cover Bihar elections on a smartphone was purely an editorial call. Motorola saw value in the property and decided to support it. But it does not in any way interfere with the content. It is like election coverage on TV, which has been attracting sponsors without any involvement or say in the content per se,” she says.

Kapur says The Quint has plans to venture into content marketing and will set up a separate team for it. Partho Ganguly, business head at The Quint, says their plans regarding native advertising are pretty similar to what Buzzfeed, Vox or Vice are doing in the US. “We want to create compelling content that resonates with the brand. The content even if it is weaved around a product will bring some value to the reader,” he says.

Kapur talks of All India Bakchod’s Creep Qawaali that went viral early this month as an example of content marketing. “It was essentially an ad for the dating app, Truly Madly, but it wasn’t in your face. And it sparked off conversation,” she says.

In that sense what separates native ads from the print advertorial is that, if done well, they must engage readers in ways more than traditional advertising is able to do –- in online parlance, they must be share-worthy. And selling is a little less direct.

Scroll founder Samir Patil says the key is to have high-quality content for your native ads that match with what the brand stands for. “For example, one successful campaign by Goldman Sachs was their annual report on the state of the global economy. Another car maker researched and published the best road trips in the US,” he says.

Scroll has a commercial team that works on native ads, which, again, are marked as “sponsored” with the name and brand logo of the sponsor right on top of the article. “We sense a big and growing interest in Native. In fact, just last week we met one of the largest digital ad agencies in India, which has established a dedicated Native team, to discuss coverage for these types of ads with multiple brands who are interested (early adopters are likely auto, real estate, education, e-commerce). It’s probably the biggest commercial opportunity for digital media to engage with brands because it plays to our strength of storytelling,” says Patil.

Even as native advertising is only finding its feet in India, two factors will make it difficult for brands to ignore it. One, the shift to mobile. India’s mobile Internet users are set to double by 2017 and display ads just don’t work on smaller screens. And, two, ad blocking.

For the digital media, native ads may just present new opportunities to sustain newsrooms. But transparency will be key if publishers want to retain the reader or viewer’s trust.

Given that native advertising is relatively new in India, there are no set guidelines on disclosure. Back in the US, the Internet Advertising Bureau published its first set of guidelines this year. A 2015 survey in Contently, though, shows that most consumers identify native ads as articles. Interestingly, 59 per cent readers also believed that a news site loses credibility if it runs articles sponsored by a brand. Which isn’t good news for the Indian media that has already lost a lot of its credibility owing to paid news and motivated reporting.

Indeed, no matter what the quality of content is, it’s discomforting to realise you have been conned into reading sponsored content. In that respect, one hopes new media will be a little different from old media in the way it treats sponsored content.

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