Three-D Issue 29: Brand ventriloquism: when media go native

Advertising on the internet has yet to reap the rewards that publishers have hoped for. While the internet giants pile up profits from providing the platforms, advertising income for publishers is well below what it would once have been for equivalent print.

Online publishers are being driven to make more and more concessions to attract advertisers, offering space for paid-for copy disguised as editorial, and this direct involvement of brands has exploded into what is now known as ‘native advertising’. It is a growing problem for media freedom that was discussed at a special conference of the Branded Content Research Network conference in London in November.

At a pre-conference public meeting, journalist James Cusick of openDemocracy held a can of beans in the air and asked: what is more important, the contents of this can, or who is behind the content of news media online? He told the audience: “You have a right to know the contents of the tin, so why not for something arguably even more important, news publications?” There were more legal requirements to identify the contents of the beans than there were for news journalism, where sponsored content was increasingly being foisted onto the public without adequate identification.

This kind of branded content, known as “native advertising”, is described by the Interactive Advertising Bureau as “ads that are so cohesive with page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform, that the viewer simply feels that they belong”. Native advertising now accounts for a third of UK display advertising. In print, such copy was known as “advertorial”, and traditionally presented as such, with distinctive design and typography and often a notice saying “Advertisement Feature” at the top.

There are still industry rules that marketing communications must be clearly identified as such, so that people know when they are being sold to. But evidence from US researchers presented at the conference shows that the public are not sufficiently aware of the origin of what is being presented to them. Michelle Amazeen of Boston University demonstrated that, even with prominent labelling, barely a tenth of all readers were aware of native advertising content, a figure in line with other research studies. “Whatever the protestations of marketers and publishers,” she said, “the majority of readers are still largely unaware of brand-voiced content.” Prominent labelling and identification of native advertising did help recognition, she said, and people who were aware that they were reading advertising were more resistant to the messaging. Disclosures can “inoculate” against marketer persuasion by motivating greater resistance. So, audiences were more receptive to native advertising when publishers were clearer about its commercial nature. It was the concealment that put people off. The findings have implications for reputable publishers seeking to strengthen the trust and support of readers. Amazeen said: “readers want control”. One had told researchers: “I do not want to have to read something that is not purely news, unless I choose to do so”.

Research by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), the UK industry trade association, also indicates that trust in a brand or publisher can diminish if the origin of the content is unclear. The IAB’s Christie Dennehy-Neil outlined the IAB’s disclosure principles, which include the use of prominent visual cues and up-front labelling. She argued that it was in the interests of the industry to retain the trust and confidence of consumers, and to follow the IAB’s best practice guidance for relevance, value and clarity in advertising.

But another speaker from the USA, Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania, said that the political economic forces driving new marketing trends were simply too powerful to be contained by industry voluntarism or regulation, however desirable. He said developments in marketing communications point to an entirely new logic for reaching out to consumers, involving personalisation and artificial intelligence. He called this “conversational advertising”, citing the online artificial-intelligence “personal assistants” such as Siri, Alexa, Google assistant and others, who will bring brand choice and communications into our homes and lives. Amazon already makes deals with brands to privilege their products in the household products that can be purchased using Dash buttons. All these developments require people to give up their data, yet most have little idea what happens to it.

These changes raise profound issues of privacy, ethics and social power as the discriminations arising from the collection and use of data intensify. Yet, the governance of branded content is deficient, and needs overhauling within and across jurisdictions. As Mara Einstein of Queen’s College, CUNY, author of Black Ops Advertising, pointed out the US regulator, the Federal Trade Commission, issued guidelines on advertising content two years ago but has only brought one successful legal action since, against the non-disclosure of paid promotions by a clothing firm, Lord & Taylor. Brand communication, she highlighted, is occurring increasingly in audiovisual and visual apps, such as the sponsored lenses and geofilters on Snapchat, yet identification of advertising is not being maintained as content is moved and shared across platforms.

In the UK, the case for stricter, more consistent labelling of native advertising is strong, against the confusing array of terms encountered, from “special feature” to “supported by …”. The route to more effective regulation, though, is likely to require a mix of enforceable laws, industry codes, and responsiveness to changing user attitudes and awareness as people navigate rapidly evolving encounters with the screens and spaces where paid promotions occur. But there is much more to this debate than the transparency of advertising. There is the effect of native advertising on the quality and “integrity” of media. Even the International Public Relations Association says the PRs should “not engage in practice which tends to corrupt the integrity of any channel of communication”. Then there is the power and share of marketers’ voices in communications as a whole. Societies have sought to allow marketers to communicate, but set limits to serve a variety of social purposes – from rules on where outdoor posters can appear, to regulations on product placement. So, the key concerns are not just the recognition of advertising by consumers, but also what happens if the voice of marketers overwhelms valued features such as editorial independence from sponsor interests in news publishing. We need greater transparency about the commercial sources for news stories, and better regulation keeping editorial and advertising apart. And we need to end the hypocrisy of media outlets denouncing one kind of fake news, like internet lies, while embracing another, like disguised advertising.

The conference held at the University of East London completed the first phase of an AHRC-funded project, which I co-ordinated. The Branded Content Research Network brings together interests and perspectives across academia with industry bodies, such as the Branded Content Marketing Association, media unions and civil society. The network itself is a broad forum for research and dialogue on digital advertising and media, that advances social and cultural enquiry, including critical perspectives. We organised the conference in association with the ECREA Advertising Research Group, involving speakers from more than 15 countries. The widest dialogue is vital for the quality and capacity of research into all aspects of the new media-marketing ecology, and so I am very grateful to the energy and goodwill of so many people who participated. We don’t all agree on naming problems or solutions, but we do agree, I think, that the relationship between brands and communications matters for society as well as for business, and that all those affected need to be engaged in discussion about their impact and regulation.

An earlier version of this article was published in the CPBF journal Free Press, No 213, Winter 2017/18.

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