Ads masquerading as journalism, the slippery slope of branded content

Increasingly, media institutions like the New York Times and Condé Nast have been opening their pages and websites to 'native' ads designed to blend in with regular articles. Neil Macdonald asks if this is a good thing.

9 clickbait reasons to be wary of 'native advertising.' Actually, it's just a debate

The lead on the New York Times/Netflix 1,500-word collaboration designed to promote the TV series Orange is the New Black. The author, Melanie Deziel, was until last month the head of the Time's in-house branded content team, T Brand Studio. (CBC)

Journalism and advertising have always carried on a sordid, furtive relationship.

They need one another. They want one another, and they've coupled profitably since news was invented. Privately, their ardour is inexhaustible.

Publicly, though, journalism is the rigidly self-righteous deacon, married to truth and principle, reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone publicly do business in the gaudy bordello of advertising.

That's the relationship, and it always has been. Journalism holds its nose, and pretends it cannot be bought, but it needs the filthy lucre. The news division has always been sort of a silent partner.

Trouble is, the cheque has stopped arriving. Ever since some idiot first decided to give away editorial content on the internet, advertising has been sending journalism less and less money each month.

Newsrooms that once had hundreds of employees now have dozens.

The banner and pop-up ads that were supposed to monetize the internet never really worked; they were annoying, and people just clicked past them.

When websites made it impossible to click past them, readers and viewers would just surf on to something else.

Branded content

Meanwhile, the very concept of a regular, defined, subscription-paying audience — to which journalism's first and only loyalty is supposed to lie — has shrivelled.

Paywalls have not worked. There's so much free content out there that most people see no reason to buy subscriptions.

The whole online experience, for news organizations, has been a form of unassisted suicide.

In a single generation, news organizations went from serving (and sometimes preaching to) paying subscribers, to chasing herds of fickle readers and viewers who "snack" information on phones and tablets, and expect it all for free.

It's all accelerated so quickly that a lot of us have stopped pretending we don't know how it will turn out.

But a new form of advertising is erupting, and to me, anyway, it offers the first real hope, even if it violates the prime directive I was taught as a newsroom lad 39 years ago.

In the industry, these new ads are called "native," or, more commonly, "branded content."

Called "native" or "branded" content, this kind of clickbait advertising has become a regular feature on most news websites. But they are only part of the story. (CBC)

Look and you find them quickly enough. They are the "around the web" section on news websites, or the "partner content" section, or the "sponsored stories."

At first glance, they blur, even shatter the line between journalism's church and state.

Which is to say, they are not clearly and unequivocally ads in the old sense. They actually appear to be journalism. Some are more clearly marked than others, and some are barely marked at all.

What they have in common, though, is they are interesting. The term "native" is a reference to the fact that they live more naturally alongside strictly editorial content than hard-sell, old-style shilling ever did.

In any event, everyone is doing it. High-end magazines deploy them, too. The New York Times, a cathedral of journalistic ethics if ever there was one, has an entire "branded content" department.

It produces ads, but deeply clever ones, which blend actual journalism with a subtle sales pitch.

In fact, the Times's "branded content" is sometimes better reading than its staff-written journalism.

It recently produced an interactive feature on women in prison that was blatantly identified as having been done in co-operation with Netflix, to promote its show "Orange is the New Black."

Basically, Netflix paid the Times a lot of money to create an ad, masquerading as an interesting story, rather than a straight sales pitch.

Which of course is the idea: producing ads the reader actually wants to read, rather than surf past.

The dissenting voice

Evangelists for the old ways, people like the author and editor Andrew Sullivan, are appalled.

Sullivan's case against native advertisement is powerful and succinct. "It is advertising that is portraying itself as journalism, simple as that," he told me recently.

Author and editor Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic, says media companies are just prostituting themselves by working so closely with advertisers and crossing the ethical line. (CBC)

"It is an act of deception of the readers and consumers of media who believe they're reading the work of an independent journalist."

Advertisers, he says, want to buy the integrity built up over decades by journalists and which, in the past, was kept at arm's length.

Now they will happily pay to imitate it: "The whole goal is you not being able to tell the difference."

Sullivan's argument is so doctrinaire, so principled, that it makes bourgeois practitioners of the craft, like me, squirm.

He's an Oxford-educated debater who gave up lucrative jobs running institutions like the New Republic and Atlantic magazines to run his own blog, The Dish.

He accepts no advertising. The Dish subsists solely on selling subscriptions, something just about no one else does. The loyalty of Sullivan's editorial team is solely to its audience.

Andrew Sullivan can make a modern mainstream journalist feel like a cheap whore, and does it with piercing, offhanded Englishness.

A speech he delivered at Harvard recently was searing. Journalism, he argued, is selling its integrity, bit by bit.

It's like water, leaking between your fingers. And when that is gone, we are finished. The advertisers will have no further use for us.

"The whole point of creating advertisements that look like articles is obviously designed to compromise the integrity of the system," he told the audience.

"This is not a new business model. It's the oldest profession in the world. There is no … ethical line they would not cross. It is survival at all costs."

And yet

Sullivan's ultimate solution, though, is not very satisfying. News organizations, he concludes, should rely entirely on subscriptions, or become foundations and seek out wealthy patrons.

"Those are two perfectly good options. Downsize dramatically, and start over with ethics, or find yourself a sugar daddy to pay your way," he says.

At the other end of the online spectrum from The Dish is Buzzfeed.

I visited its offices — actually, more of a playground — in Manhattan recently. Young, plugged-in people sprawling on couches, creating the sort of silly clickbait — "29 struggles that only people with big butts will understand" — that pulls millions of page views.

Technically, Buzzfeed distinguishes its staff-written copy from its ads, but they look awfully similar.

And once they are shared and re-shared on social media, which is Buzzfeed's model, all distinction is lost.

New guys on the block: BuzzFeed and Facebook's 'outsider event' held at the same time as the 2014 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in May 2014. (Associated Press)

Sullivan, unsurprisingly, cites Buzzfeed as everything that is wrong with journalism.

But while Sullivan's blog, The Dish, is just getting by (and may not even be able to continue; it was Sullivan's creation, and he just announced his retirement from blogging), Buzzfeed took in $150 million last year.

It has formed an investigative unit. It now has a Pulitzer Prize winning writer on staff. It sends correspondents around the world. It hires new people all the time. Thanks to native ads.

You can look at native ads the way Sullivan does, as a base selloff of journalism's credibility, or you can look at them as ads people actually want to read.

One way or the other, they pay journalists' salaries, which means a continuation of professional journalism.

I remarked to Sullivan that no matter how an ad is dressed up, I know pretty quickly what I'm looking at. Don't we have to trust the reader to be just as intelligent?

His reply: "When the reader is supposed to be intelligent enough to see through your deception of the reader, you have the wrong idea of what reader intelligence is about."

There was a time when I would have immediately agreed, with dogmatic certainty. But that was back when we had the luxury of debating such things and still taking home a nice paycheque.

Nowadays, I'm afraid, I'm all for ads the reader will actually read. As a crass, self-interested matter of survival. 


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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