In Defense of Native Advertising
Dave Trott’s words are golden to me, always. But for once, I am forced to disagree with Mr. Trott on his perspective — specifically, his stance on native advertising. As he rightly says, native advertising isn’t as new as it looks because of its digital form today. He excellently points out that, decades ago, advertorials were ads disguised as journalistic writing. Today, native advertising is back in fashion because it proves effective when reaching out to an audience that has innumerable ways of dodging and ignoring all advertising flung at them. Mr. Trott calls this approach “pretending to be something else”, as if the big, bad world of advertising gave room to uphold such morals and ethics. With all due respect, ads — those hyperbolic, idealistic, know-it-all, creatively indulgent thingamajigs that we create — don’t have to be sold or distributed as content to not already be pretending to be something else in the first place
Back in the day, native advertising existed because agencies didn’t think the audience was smart enough. Today, native advertising exists because agencies know that the audience is too smart to keep up with. I believe this makes all the difference. Back then, consumers were not too educated about the products and services they bought into. Ads were a brilliant way of manipulating minds to see a particular brand, or even a product category altogether, in a certain light. People were buying into slogans, jingles and attractive faces championing brands that simultaneously behaved like experts and celebrities.
Fast-forward to today: when consumers are smarter than ever, always double-checking, even triple-checking, to see if they are buying the right brand of whiteboard eraser. Traditional advertising is hardly ever what convinces them anymore, at a time when they can interact with brands directly via so many channels. Thanks to screens and wireless technology, there is no longer that invisible wall that keeps a consumer from contacting a company with queries, complaints, compliments and more. Brands are not invincible; on the contrary, a single opinion on the Internet can make or break the brand, depending on whose it is. So brands are more vulnerable than ever, because all it takes is a mere politically incorrect statement released in some corner of the web to lose a chunk of their audience along with their trust.
Brands influence people by appearing to be cool, witty or thoughtful on Twitter and mobile. A rave review from an influential blogger gives them solid leverage. Showing great customer care on Facebook is a show-don’t-tell manner of saying “we are here to take care of your needs”. And then of course, there’s producing memorable content on digital platforms, which is where we come back to the topic of native advertising. If anything makes for a funny, insightful or entertaining read or watch, people really don’t mind the brand getting a little spotlight. It doesn’t always need to hide behind a “sponsored by…” disclaimer in tiny font size at the end of the Buzzfeed listicle. The entire storytelling can be woven around the narcissistic brand. Frankly, the audience doesn’t give a damn. It’s not like they aren’t advertising their own selves all over their social media accounts anyway. If there’s something in it for them as well as something in it for the brand, they’re not going to dwell over how much the brand is making while they’re happily clicking, laughing and sharing branded content.
Perhaps people in the advertising business find native advertising too small to consider it a channel on its own. Clearly, we are underestimating its power. It’s kind of like those ignorant days when digital plans were considered a minor wing, attached at the very last minute, to a TVC-led campaign created for the client. (Sadly, most of the Indian advertising industry still lives under this old fallacy.) But whoever said content is king, spoke wisely. I believe fresh, novel ways of feeding branded content are not clever disguises as much as a creative preparation of a rather unsurprising dish. If the brand didn’t need advertising in the first place because the product is so spectacular (like Airbnb, or Facebook) then by all means, don’t even bother with innovative marketing gimmicks. Focus on perfecting your already brilliant product and you’re good to go. The rest of us representing brands that aren’t offering anything our uber-smart consumers already don’t know or have, will have to stop begging for attention and earn it instead. By going native.