If you only critique the worst examples of something, you’ll always be right

I’m a huge fan of of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It’s probably my favorite TV show of the last year with Inside Amy Schumer running a close second. LWT is funny, sharp, intelligent and complex. Exactly what you want out of comedy and TV. So when I saw Oliver’s take on native advertising pop up in my various feeds, I was sure it was going to be brutal.

Not really.

It’s disappointing that Oliver comes across as little more than a vulgar Bob Garfield here. Not that there’s anything wrong with vulgarity, mind you. But when you reduce native advertising to the worst possible version of itself then of course it will be terrible and something that should be resoundingly mocked.

Judging all native advertising by the standards of Buzzfeed’s native advertising is like judging all television by Two And A Half Men. If you use your editorial department to create native advertising or give it an ugly design or try to hide its origins, you should stop creating it.

Anyone who does what Oliver describes is doing wrong by both the editorial and business departments. You’ve basically created more Internet garbage and ethically compromised your work.

But when it’s done well? It’s informative or entertaining and supports a brand’s overall identity. It’s notable here that “but it’s still an ad!” is the only complaint Oliver can level against the Orange Is The New Black native piece from The New York Times. Honestly, I’d rather watch any of the videos that accompany it than Two And A Half Men any day. (I’d embed them here but it’s not possible.)

Sadly, there are probably journalists in newsrooms right now that have viewed the above OITNB native content – a 1,500 word piece on women in prisons with three compelling videos alongside it – and would love to be able to do work of that caliber as a purely journalistic undertaking instead of the listicles or aggregated content they’re told is the stuff that people really want right now and will fund the newsroom’s more lofty endeavors.

Frankly, that should have been the target of Oliver’s viral rant: the race to the bottom of online content. There are plenty of supposedly pure journalistic undertakings that are as disposable and advertiser-driven as any native advertising piece. Watching “real news” organizations all try to explain what went on in an elevator between Jay-Z and Solange is far more depressing to me that native advertising.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this:

That’s native advertising. Though I’d argue it should be disclosed better which is bad for Wren, the company that made it, because it barely mentions them and only right at the beginning. But 88 million people watched it.

Incidentally, that’s about the same number of people who watched the first six seasons of Two And A Half Men. Combined.

I’ve written about making native advertising more ethical and effective before. You can read that here.

4 comments for “If you only critique the worst examples of something, you’ll always be right

  1. August 4, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I don’t know, the bits of interview footage with Joe Ripp, the Time Inc. CEO and Meredith Kopit Levien of The New York Times was a pretty good argument expanding the native advertising argument past the Buzzfeed level.

    This issue is simple: native advertising is fine if it’s clearly marked. But the folks running the media companies don’t want it clearly marked because they know it will then be passed over as an ad. And you know that sentiment can turn negative if a native ad is particularly effective since then people feel tricked. And yes, that’s the snake eating its tail and even I don’t have a surefire solution on how to fix that, yet.

    Personally I think the OitNB piece fell in the category of a good native ad with but much does not. I’ve seen a few things on Death And Taxes that doesn’t even include a tiny “sponsored by” line. And almost every client I’ve worked with was resistant to creating native advertising that is actually meaningful to a reader because, basically, they just want their brand messaging reinforced and can’t understand why average joes don’t want to hear that.

    But you know that already.

  2. Scott Smith
    August 4, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Yeah but it’s not like Time Inc. has been innovative or forward-thinking in digital up to now. They just copy what others have done but reproduce it poorly. They’re like the Multiplicity of news organizations.

  3. August 4, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    We should make a distinction between Native Advertising and Content Marketing: the former being *advertising* cloaked as something else (for better or worse) so the reader won’t automatically ignore it; the latter being relevant and valuable content brands provide users that have residual marketing benefits, but are not simply ads. The very concept of native advertising seems doomed to me for the reasons TankBoy mentions, which means that it will have diminishing returns as a tactic the more readers recognize. That is not only bad for the marketer (who will just move on to some other tactic) but potentially deadly to the publisher once readers stop trusting it as an info source.

    I found it fascinating that Oliver didn’t use that Camel sponsored bit as an example of the *reason* publishers created the separation of church and state in the first place. The value of the NYT or any other reputable news agency was in its perceived objectivity in reporting, which can only happen if the advertising dept is kept out of the editorial room. It wasn’t just for good karma, it was a business decision.

  4. August 5, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Agree with Derek that I’d put the First Kiss more in a content marketing category than I would a ‘native advertising’ category — because it’s not native anywhere (or at least, I never saw it anywhere). What I’m critiquing, what Oliver is critiquing, is the masquerading of advertising content within editorial content.

    (Incidentally, I still agree that the First Kiss wasn’t all that effective. But that’s another issue.)

    And that’s really what native advertising is all about. We can justify it to ourselves as an industry — and we’re really good at justifying any new revenue streams, let’s be honest — saying that as long as it’s clearly labeled and ‘adds value’, everything will be OK. But at the end of the day, we’re still mixing the inherent bias of the content creators within unbiased content in a way that will inevitably confuse people.

    If brands really want to add value to a conversation, there are a myriad of clearer, less ethically-murky ways to do it. Content marketing, “brand journalism”, whatever you want to call it.

    PS, Critiquing the worst examples of things is kind of what comedians do. Jon Stewart has made a good living out of doing this about the media for years. Doesn’t make him wrong.

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