Why John Oliver Is Wrong on Native Advertising

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John Oliver thinks native advertising is the devil.

On the Aug. 3 edition of his talk show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver took on BuzzFeed, Time Inc., The New York Times, and other publishers who distribute native and sponsored content from advertisers. He called out Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, for relying 100 percent on native advertising to make money, and the Times for running an almost unrecognizable native ad for Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”

In his rant, John Oliver said, “It’s generally agreed upon in journalism that there should be a wall separating the editorial and the business side of news,” comparing it to the separation between church and state.
Though Oliver makes some solid points, it’s hard to take him seriously when HBO uses BuzzFeed sponsored posts to promote his show, a fact that he barely touched upon. In 2009, HBO paid Gawker to set up a blogging campaign called “BloodCopy” to advertise “True Blood.” Posts were not labeled as advertisements and Gawker took flack for it. By criticizing BuzzFeed and native advertising, Oliver is biting the hand that helps to feed him.
On the show, John Oliver did mention one very important fact: The public isn’t willing to pay for the news anymore, so publishers are forced to make money elsewhere. Nobody clicks banner ads anymore. Native ads were the natural progression to keep an audience’s attention. And since journalism is a crucial tenet to freedom, information, and democracy, how does Mr. Oliver suggest we fund it?

The Separation Between Publishers and Advertisers Has Always Been Nonexistent

When it comes to the news industry, there has never been a true separation of church and state (which in and of itself is an inappropriate comparison, because that idea doesn’t really exist either—just look at the back of our currency or the end of every presidential speech—but that’s a different story).
As John Oliver himself pointed out, Camel sponsored the evening news back in the day. Women’s magazines have never had any hesitation running an editorial about acne and skin care next to a Noxzema ad. The only concern now is that readers may be more easily “tricked” into looking at an ad. We think this undermines the intelligence of the reader. If a piece of content is engaging, useful, hilarious, or touching – does it matter where it came from? Does it matter who’s writing the journalist or creator behind the content a check?

With native advertising, the consumer should be getting something in return: funny, inspirational, educational, heartwarming, or thoughtful content. When native advertising is done right, it can lead to magnificent results.

Successful Native Ads Exist

Instead of taking up space with useless ads, publishers are now filling it with quality content from advertisers. Take General Electric, who teamed up with men’s clothing and lifestyle brand Thrillist to put out a series of articles about the energy company’s role in the 1969 moon landing. The articles included “11 Things You Didn’t Know about the Apollo Missions” and “10 Reasons Why the Apollo Astronauts were Certified Badasses.
A GE logo clearly appears above the articles to indicate that the company sponsored them. The articles are informative, entertaining, easily digestible, and appealed to the Thrillist audience. GE benefited too, selling out of the moon landing shoes it offered to customers in just seven minutes (they later appeared on Ebay for over $2,000).
VICE teamed up with Intel to produce “The Creator’s Project,” a site where artists talk about how technology has influenced their work. Intel increased its influence among a younger demographic, artists got their work featured on a huge platform, and VICE received hundreds of millions of hits on its YouTube page, enabling it to fund other projects, like sending journalists around the world to report on real issues.
In 2013, Forbes reported that sponsored content made up 20 percent of its advertising revenue. The site separates advertisers onto their own BrandVoice sections and simply provides the hosting and the audience. For example, SAP puts out high quality articles about technology on its SAPVoice site. Readers can obviously see, through the author’s titles and the name of the site that the content is not written by Forbes. It’s for people who want to read articles about technology created by a company that knows it well.

The Upsides and Rules of Native Ads

Native advertising helps publishers stay afloat, keeps a creative class employed, and in the best-case scenarios, gives something back to its audience. A plethora of writers, editors, and photographers lost their jobs when the traditional publishing industry model collapsed. Newspapers were shuttered and people were laid off with the loss of paid subscriptions. Now they’ve found work elsewhere thanks to sponsored content.
For native advertising to work well, everyone needs to play by the same rules. Brands must make it clear that they are sponsoring content. They have to cater to the publishers’ demographic and release content that they’d be interested in. Otherwise, it’s pointless. The brand has to have a passion for the content they’re putting out and hire people who do as well. If you wouldn’t read it, share it, or gush about it to a friend – it’s probably not good enough.
When it comes to GOOD native advertising, consumers, publishers, and advertisers can all benefit. And there is no creativity in cherry picking bad examples (Sorry, Atlantic) in a nascent platform. Oliver may have a problem with it, but while HBO continues to run native ads supporting his platform, he might want to stick to politics.

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