Major News Outlets Deceive Readers with Native Advertising

By Sophie Peters ’16

While researching native advertising for this article, I skeptically read countless articles and viewed many advertisements. However, the labels for some native advertisements are so unclear that even I got sucked into thinking this National Security Agency (NSA)-sponsored article was a real article when I clicked on it from the website. This is especially shocking because I was on the hunt for native advertisements.

The definition of native advertising has been debated in the past couple of years as its popularity has grown. Essentially, native advertising is a type of advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears. The word “native” refers to the ad’s coherence with other media on the platform.

For example, a television show might pay to have an article about their show on an entertainment website. Several news sources have also started using native advertising, which, even with banners or labels stating the content is advertising, can make it difficult for readers to decipher if the article is an editorial or an advertisement.

As native advertising at media companies grows more popular, the news source’s credibility should fade for readers.

The NSA-sponsored article was published in Oct. 2014 by Gigaom, a media company with technology as a main focus. These ads, written by the NSA, tell a positive narrative of the agency in order to advertise their career opportunities. As a technology-centered website, Gigaom also covers the necessary stories about the NSA’s recent wrongdoing. However, the only difference in how the two types of pages look are the words, “Sponsored post,” before a colon separating it from the headline. If a reader does not see the difference, it will look as though the NSA piece is a purely news article.

In one of the NSA-sponsored posts on Gigaom, they state, “The agency also enables network warfare operations to defeat terrorists and their organizations at home and abroad, consistent with U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil liberties.” In fact, in the latest reports released suspiciously on Christmas Eve 2014 by the NSA, they detail a great number of illegal actions in relation to American domestic surveillance, in addition to many other violations throughout the years. The advertisement for the corrupt agency masquerades itself as the new source’s article. However, the types of articles normally written about the NSA in the past few years are rarely complimentary, and this advertisement claims they do not violate federal law. If a reader were to not know it was a sponsored post, they might be misled.

The value of traditional journalism that is written by people with a mission for transparency and awareness is demeaned by native advertisements. By allowing sponsored posts by companies, news sources are destroying their worth, thus detracting from real journalism. In a 2014 survey by Contently, 59 percent of readers believed a site lost credibility when it posted articles written by brands.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the top three U.S. newspapers by average daily circulation in 2013 are the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today. All three of those papers have experimented with native advertising, and they will continue to use it in 2015.

The first native ad at The New York Times. (Photo: New York Times)

The first native ad at The New York Times. (Photo: New York Times)

During the third quarter in 2014, The New York Times gained a 16.5 percent increase from the year prior in digital-ad revenue, which includes native advertising, according to the company. However, the company still lost more in that quarter than the third quarter in 2013, partially because of the declining print circulation. In 2014, the newspaper laid off and accepted buyouts from nearly a hundred people, which was their plan for the year. Executive editor Jill Abramson was also ousted, due to her opposition to native advertising, among other things. Native advertising is expected to bring more earnings to the company in 2015 under new executive editor Dean Baquet.

A more recent native ad at The New York Times. (Photo: The New York Times)

A more recent native ad at The New York Times. (Photo: The New York Times)

However, readers of The Times have had trouble differentiating if articles are advertisements or not. Since The Times released its first native advertisement last January, they reduced their labeling of native advertisments. Their first published native piece included a large banner and border indicating its advertisement status, but the features have been shrunken now. The Times has also created their in-house “T Brand Studio” to write content that is paid for by companies but not written by them, which is even further confusing to a reader trying to differentiate between paid content and editorial.

A newspaper’s primary purpose should be informing the public in the most transparent way possible. Allowing native advertising belittles this noble purpose by allowing advertisements to pose as articles. Even if the company and news agency is not out to deceive the public, they should think twice. If a newspaper with native ads is read by a million people, and out of everyone, just one person does not see the “Paid for by…” banner, the newspaper is still failing the people by providing content paid for by a company with a different agenda than the newspaper’s mission of educating the public.

Native advertising might end up also having a side effect of readers thinking every time the newspaper writes about a company that has also written an article, they are simply serving the company’s agenda, thus, losing credibility for the newspaper. The newspaper should not be working for the company, but that may not stop reader confusion and distrust.

According to a IPG Labs/Sharethrough study, consumers viewed native ads 53 percent more frequently than display ads, and they were much more likely to share the advertisement with a friend. There is no doubt that native advertisements are greatly benefiting the companies who write them.

An eMarketer report from November of 2014 stated that a predicted $3.7 billion would be spent on native ads by marketers in 2015 compared to the already great $3.1 billion spent in 2014.

Unfortunately, these news sources are driven in this direction because they need money in order to sustain themselves. Now that a person can simply click the Twitter icon on their phone to see the news, many people are not purchasing subscriptions or print copies. However, how low should news agencies be willing to go so that they do not go bankrupt? Perhaps it is better to lose money than misinform or lose the trust of the public with sponsored posts.

Native advertising should scare United States citizens, because it detracts from the real news in this technological era when the news is already confusing due to the vast amount of information produced by citizen journalists. Real journalism is what informs the public of the truth, not what a government, company, or single person wants the public to think. Native advertising further puzzles the public, and brings down the credibility of newspapers that already are having trouble sustaining themselves in this world with so much digital content and decreasing numbers of print copies.