The hottest topic in online media and marketing these days is the idea of “sponsored content,” or “native advertising”: basically, a paid advertisement that resembles an article that would run on that news website, with headline, photo and everything.
It’s a controversial practice. Critics say blurring the ad/editorial divide corrodes reader trust. Advocates counter that quality sponsored content engages consumers in ways that a blinking banner ad never could — and because a native advertisement is only effective if it’s genuinely engaging, there’s a baked-in bias toward ads that are basically as good as the site’s editorial content.
While I have sympathy for the critics’ view in the long term, I’ve personally never had trouble telling at a glance what is sponsored and what isn’t — and I reflexively ignore sponsored content altogether, anyway. But recently it occurred to me that if the really good stuff really is as entertaining and informative as a given site’s genuine output, then I’m missing out.
And so I decided to go on a sponsored-content binge — clicking through and reading every native advertisement I could find in one day. Here are the results.
I started on BuzzFeed, one of the most aggressive champions of the idea that advertisers can and should build content that’s just as shareable as editorial. Not surprisingly, this means lots of GIF-heavy listicles. I had high hopes when the very first instance I saw was 10 Reasons Aziz Ansari Was So Right About Modern Technology, promoting the comedian’s new special on Netflix. Instead of the video clips I assumed it would include, it was mostly based on his tweets and quotes from interviews. The result was so-so.
A Panera Bread post on 10 Foods That Should Have Been Placed In Museums and one for Wal-Mart called 10 Of Your Favorite Toys Then And Now seemed to touch the nostalgia button with commenters, but both seemed like halfhearted versions of a real BuzzFeed listicle. And I don’t even know what to say about 14 Reasons Why Mom Jeans Are The Best Jeans. I can actually imagine a BuzzFeed post that makes a funny case for this absurd proposition, but this was a distinctly slapdash collection of captioned pictures and GIFs brought to you by Geico:
“Mom jeans are comfy. And wearing comfy pants is simply delightful — just like the delight you get with GEICO customer service.” Did I really just read that?
It turns out that the listicle is popular format for sponsored content. The Atlantic (infamous for its embarrassing decision to sell the Church of Scientology a forum that resembled editorial) had a curious example. Brought to you by Rolex, “Icons: History Told Through Human Achievement” consisted of a “gallery” of 10 photographs of important humans with snippets of text gathered from “the brand's archive.” I have no idea what this has to do with Rolex. Or what the payoff is supposed to be. Or why Roger Federer is on a basically random list alongside Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso.
Native advertising isn’t all listicles and GIFticles, however; sometimes they’re dressed up as a genuine service to readers. This Xerox contribution to Forbes BrandVoice, for example, offers tips about managing email and to-do lists and so on. A piece on Quartz touted “4 reasons Japan could continue to be the land of the rising stock market.” Sponsored by iShares, the post was written by an “investment strategist” who offers his view that “Japan offers more upside potential in the next three months to six months.” The caveats and fine print dissembling at the end are longer than the four reasons, so factor that in if you decide to, um, buy some Japan.
Over at Slate I found a rather large collection of stories gathered under the umbrella “The Living Longer Project.” I ignored the Slate-written articles and examined the ones “provided by Prudential,” such as this write-up about “sweaty bodies, throbbing electronic beats, [and] gyrating lights” that I guess has to do with employees working out at lunchtime? And employers encouraging this because it keeps health insurance costs down? I invite you to parse the closing paragraph:
Although critics of the newer, more holistic wellness programs point out the difficulties in accurately measuring results, experts believe that, regardless of what the incentives are, if employees are happier and healthier in their lives, then that in itself is a significant achievement and will show up over time in the company's own achievements.
This awkward and meaningless passage at least reassures me that nobody on Slate’s edit staff had a hand in it.
I moved on to Vice, where the main sponsored attraction was a series of videos underwritten by Honda and titled “Off The Map.” I watched the most recent short documentary, in which a couple of smug New York art/design dudes go on a motorcycle “adventure” in the Hudson Valley area — a shooting range, a barbecue joint, etc. The dudes make a variety of banal observations about guns, food, motorcycle riding and the slower pace of life outside the city. Also they play air hockey. In all, the video is expertly produced — but shockingly toothless. Isn’t Vice supposed to be edgy?
Finally I made my way to Gizmodo — part of the Gawker empire that has been another vocal defender of sponsored content’s possibilities. A text-y ad via Livestrong titled Make Informed Decisions With These Cancer Support Services was unobjectionable if not terribly informative, and indirectly led me to this collection of sponsored content that I gather Gawker helped shape.
Another Aziz Ansari promotion raised my hopes again: “Who Said It? Aziz Ansari or Noted Playwright George Bernard Shaw?” Setting aside my disappointment in the culture at large that George Bernard Shaw needed to be identified not just as a playwright, but as a “noted playwright,” I clicked, expecting a witty interactive quiz. Clever idea, right? But no. It wasn’t interactive and didn’t need to be, since all the answers were boringly obvious.
I’d had enough. I’m still not terribly worked up about the fear that these Advertorial 2.0 experiments are a threat to journalistic integrity at this point. In fact, I’m somewhat reassured. Based on this survey, I’d guess anybody clicking around in sponsored content-land is going to learn pretty quickly that, for now at least, the new advertising has a lot in common with traditional advertising: Most of it is quite easy to skip.