If An Ad Guy Wants Your Message To “Blend In,” He’s A Quack

Native advertising—a term I can’t stand, and a concept that I do not believe in—is all over the news this week. One reason for the attention is comedian John Oliver’s takedown of Native advertising on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. Oliver is a bright and funny guy and his critique is a step in the right direction; yet, from my perspective, it falls short.

Oliver doesn’t like that church and state have been merged in today’s media.

I don’t like the idea that church and state in media were ever stand alone silos. Reporting and delivering news and opinion is a business. Journalism may serve a public good—when it is done extremely well—or it may fail utterly like the propaganda that passes for broadcast news today. Either way, news is a business and it is susceptible to the kind of market changes that all businesses in dynamic industries face. My point is that a division of church and state in media is a false ideal, so there’s nothing to restore to its former pristine condition.

Now that we see how journalism is not (and has never been) operating by higher standards than advertising, we can move forward. And may the best storytellers win!

Let’s put this in branded terms. Take an environmental issue like the diminishing water supply in the American Southwest. Which source might you trust the most here: The Los Angeles Times, The Sierra Club or Patagonia? I see all three as legitimate sources, and that’s the point. Patagonia has deep trust and credibility among its customers, and these bonds are more than a marketing platform. In a world where disinformation is the norm, trust (not outdoor gear or memberships or news) is the premium offering.

Native advertising on news sites degrades the trust of visitors. Its continued practice will come back to bite the very brands that employ this uneducated approach to marketing.

News brands losing trust by agreeing to hide narrative ads in their pages is not my concern. I want companies to continue to invest in branded content, but to do so proudly and openly. Blending in has never been part of the ad business and the same holds true today. Our job is to create visibility for brands, not its opposite, and content has a major role in this. Do you think Red Bull wants to blend in? An energy drink company that also owns a MLS team and publishes a monthly newsstand magazine definitely wants to stand out, not blend in.

Are we clear now on what content’s role is in the marketing mix? Content is the centerpiece of relationship marketing. Content is supported by and works in conjunction with a brand’s event marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, direct marketing and traditional advertising. Advertorial, as Native was once called, does have a place too. I understand brand managers are concerned that the placement of an obvious “Advertorial” label may throw readers off the trail. The answer to this concern is not to hide your story, so it appears to belong. The answer is make your story better than the journalism it surrounds.

The fact is brands have the money to invest in high quality content. Many media companies do not. That’s an advantage for brands, whether they opt to run stories with existing media outlets, or launch their own media vehicles. Either way, the idea is to compete with the best storytelling out there and earn trust one story at a time.


A great example of a company that is using content to drive commerce is Priceonomics. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the company makes its money building data-crawling software, which it uses to collect information so businesses and hedge funds can make decisions about investments. Readers wouldn’t know it by visiting the Priceonomics website, which looks like a news blog. The only mention of its software is buried at the bottom of the page.

1 Comment

  1. Agree with your assessment, David. Any “relationship” that begins with a lie (or, in this case, a heavily veiled truth) is a disservice for brands. I’d rather go back to the days of the news broadcast, sponsored by Company X. It’s more honest that way.

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