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Sponsored Content Doesn’t Have to Be the End of Journalism

Today, consumers are saturated with more and more information, and advertisers must become savvier about crafting content to stand out above the noise. Increasingly, their solution seems to be native advertising and sponsored content — branded pieces packaged to blend into the flow of journalistic and social content most users are inundated with. In 2014, during the first season of his news recap show “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver aired an 11-minute segment exploring the dangers of this trend. Early in the segment, he shows a clip of Kevin Auletta, a contributor to the New Yorker, explaining how newspapers have implemented this new model of advertising: “Native advertising is basically saying to corporations that want to advertise, ‘We will camouflage your ads to make them look like news stories.’ That’s essentially it.”

In Auletta’s framing, native advertising is collaborative deception practiced by advertisers and news organizations — a troubling breakdown of the separation between editorial integrity and obligations to sponsors. In a follow-up clip, the CEO of Time, Inc., which recently created a native advertising team, defends his choice. “As long as it’s clearly marked, as long as the consumer knows the difference between what’s editorial and what’s native, I don’t see the problem with it at all,” he says defensively, backed by the bright lights of the New York Stock Exchange. After the clip ends, Oliver quickly addresses the studio audience with a rebuttal. “Yeah, but it is a problem, though, because the consumer cannot tell the difference. A recent study showed that less than half of visitors to a news site could distinguish native advertising from actual news. And of course they can’t, because it’s supposed to blend in. You’re like a camouflage manufacturer saying, ‘Only an idiot could not tell the difference between that man and foliage.’”

There’s an important truth here: marketers are not journalists, and advertising is not journalism. These boundaries exist for a vital reason — to preserve transparency. All stories have a motive, and it’s important for the reader to know what it is. But overall, the segment presents a pretty dire view of the future of marketing, and I don’t think it necessarily tells the full story of what’s possible.

Oliver’s argument hinges on the idea that integrating branded content into an existing content flow is a form of deception. It’s an important point, and any sponsored content should be labelled ethically and appropriately. But setting aside the issue of placement, let’s look at the question of the content itself. What if placing advertisements alongside journalism and artistic content sets a high bar that can, in fact, challenge marketers to create high-quality content which adds real value to consumers? What if, rather than a way for marketers to camouflage product placements, sponsored content presents an opportunity for marketers to learn from journalists? What if it challenges marketers to get better at telling the nuanced, human stories that readers crave?

Every brand starts with a story; every company begins with hope and risk. Authentic marketing involves drilling down to the human narrative that grounds a company’s values. To tell these richer and deeper stories, marketers have the opportunity to learn techniques of investigation, structure, and form from journalists. Journalists know how to listen deeply, find the heart of the matter, and arrange personal testimony into a compelling narrative. Marketers can benefit from using these skills to communicate a brand’s story in a smart, in-depth, and honest way that adds value for the consumer.

Imagine — instead of writing copy to sell a customer on the unique flavor of a lemonade brand, why not write a profile that shows how the passion of the company’s founder manifests itself in her business? Sit down with her for an interview and listen for the details: how sipping a cold drink cut the summertime heat of her childhood home, and why working with a farmer during her first job out of college inspired her to use organic ingredients. As a marketer, sponsored content presents the opportunity to learn from journalistic values, telling authentic stories about clients with integrity in order to educate consumers.

However, sponsored content has already gotten a bad reputation, according to a recent study by Contently. Their survey found that 54% of respondents “don’t trust sponsored content,” and 57% would rather that news sites run banner ads. Meanwhile, however, long-form journalism is undergoing something of a revolution online. New organizations such as, The California Sunday Magazine, and have launched to provide and aggregate quality journalism on the Internet — not to mention the popularity of investigative podcasts such as “Serial” and “This American Life.”

With the resurgence of long-form in mind, I would argue that the message to be gained from the Contently study is not that audiences don’t want to read comprehensive narrative content. Instead, they are becoming increasingly media-literate, and don’t want to feel like they’re being deceived by ads in disguise. Even though Contently found that 57% of respondents would prefer sites run banner ads instead of sponsored content, John Oliver presented the statistic that people only click on banner ads intentionally 0.17% of the time. I would conclude from these numbers that respondents prefer banner ads not because they present a more valuable form of content, but because they’re familiar and easily categorized as ads.

If sponsored content is clearly labeled, why can’t it be a source for great content? In his segment, Oliver mentioned one such article, called “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” The piece was produced by a native advertising wing of the New York Times called the T Brand Studio, in order to promote the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black.” It was well-written and provided valuable information about the challenges incarcerated women face, gathered from interviews with experts. Oliver describes it as an example of sponsored content done right (with some reservations.) “As far as native advertising goes, that’s about as good as it gets,” he says. “The reporting is real, and the sponsored branding was minimal.”

The article features a clear disclaimer at the bottom: “This page was produced by the T Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of The New York Times, in collaboration with Netflix. The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in its preparation.” Nearby is a selection of related articles from the archives of The New York Times — the links take you away from sponsored content, over the wall and into the land of traditional news. One of the links leads to an editorial written by the husband of the woman whose book provided the basis for “Orange Is the New Black’ — at the bottom of his editorial is an italicized promotion for his wife’s memoir. Although this content is firmly sequestered away from the T Brand Studio’s sponsored content, and the author presumably didn’t pay the New York Times to share his story, the content is still arguably marketing something. Even the traditional lines aren’t as clear as we think.

Hybridization and boundary-testing have long driven content creation, especially online. Oliver raises justified concerns that this could create a dangerous confusion for consumers; however, sponsored content created with integrity can provide the opportunity for marketers to learn from journalists how to create valuable, authentic content. Every company’s brand is built on stories: the journeys of its builders, and the human problems its products solve. Those stories need to be told, and sponsored content provides the opportunity to do so in an increasingly thoughtful way.

Anna Stalker is a writer at Grain, a creative firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Two ways to her heart: a good cup of coffee and an Oxford comma.

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