Doug Clifton: Website readers risk being deceived by ‘native ads’

“Times Publisher Sets Out Plan for ‘Native’ Ads”

So read the headline that appeared over a 20-inch story telling Times readers its website would soon be carrying advertising content having the appearance of news content.

The story took pains to say that the so called  “native ads” would be clearly marked as paid content so the reader would not confuse one with the other.

A letter to Times employees and, by extension to its readers, said there would be “strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads.”

The story went on to say that the words “paid post” would appear with the native ad and a distinguishing color bar would also signal the ad’s paid status.

Needless to say the news was not greeted with a round of hosannas in the journalistic community — or even out of it. The Times quoted Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission: “By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a nonbiased source.”

And a reader risks being deceived.

This is the latest wrinkle in the age-old game of “trick the reader.” Newspapers long ago carried paid content euphemistically called “advertorial,” sales pitches made to look like news stories.

Advertorials had to be set in a different typeface, headline type couldn’t mimic the paper’s style and the content needed to carry an advertising label. Readers were confused nonetheless.

Readers in general are often ignorant of the difference between advertising and news content, even when the advertising is undisguised. And they’re completely confused by the difference between opinion and news content, too often with good cause.

If confusion reigned during the old media days, think of what’s ahead. Facebook posts, blogs, Twitter feeds, content farms, cell phone cameras, citizen journalists all spreading content that may or may not be accurate, held up to skeptical scrutiny, verified in any way.

Toss into the mix “native ads,” content whose purpose is to deceive. What is a reader to think? What to believe? What to trust? Old media was far from perfect, but it had fewer moving parts and “gatekeepers” — discredited though they sometimes were — did serve a useful filtering function.

In the ideal, “native” ads would be buried in the graveyard of bad ideas. But with the delicate financial health of most media enterprises, that’s hopelessly naive. The Times is launching this program as an unadorned revenue generator, a stab at making up for lost print advertising dollars.

Since the financial picture will likely grow more precarious, look for more of these kinds of gimmicks in the future. Hearteningly, The Times is aware of the danger here.

In its story on the change, it described several “notable missteps” in publications that have explored “native ads.” The Atlantic Magazine, for example, ran a native ad from the Church of Scientology that appeared to be a blog praising the church and its current leader, The Times story noted.

If as respectable a publication as The Atlantic can be ensnared in a credibility crisis over a native ad, we can count on many more mix-ups to come. But the silent killer is the native ad that doesn’t violate the labeling rules and goes from the marketer’s creative mind to the reader’s subconscious without a critical stop along the way.

What’s the answer? A “danger lurks” label? How about a massive education program?

For years advocates of civics education have argued that students should be required to take a media literacy instruction as a part of the curriculum. It was always a good idea. These days it’s an imperative one.

Guest Author


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