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The slippery slope of ‘native advertising’

It’s a rare event when the mainstream media devotes air time to the minutiae of marketing. When it does, it’s usually a sign of the times worth noting.

Such was the case in the wee hours of Aug. 3 when HBO’s “Last Week with John Oliver” devoted more than 10 minutes to an insightful and hilarious skewering of what used to be called “advertorial” and is now referred to as “native advertising.” See

For those of you unfamiliar with the distinction, print publications have been running advertorials — an advertisement in the form of editorial content — for decades, if not longer. I first became aware of the practice in the early 1970s when Herb Schmertz, the legendary vice president of public affairs for Mobil, launched an advocacy advertising campaign in The New York Times during the energy crisis to counter the growing environmental movement.

Schmertz’s role in the development of advertorials is worth reviewing and is neatly summed up by Andrew Gordon in his blog, Marketing Craftsmanship, at

What made Schmertz’s advertorials so persuasive and powerful was that they were intelligently crafted and actually appeared on the op-ed page of the Times. What made them so controversial was that they crossed what was supposed to be a line in the sand between editorial and advertising.

Some 40 years later, that line has blurred even more with the transition of editorial content from the printed page to the Web. Efforts by publishers to generate revenue to monetize new digital services and subsidize declining print ad pages have resulted in what some term “native advertising” and what others call a not-so-subtle breaking of the wall between church and state.

The most egregious recent example of this native advertising trend was a fawning “sponsored content” piece that appeared on the website of The Atlantic, a pillar of the establishment, in praise of the Church of Scientology’s controversial leader, David Miscavige.

Initially posted online on Jan. 14, 2013, at midday, the content caused such a firestorm that it was taken offline by 11:30 p.m. that very day and followed by an apology that began with three simple words: “We screwed up.”

Contrary to what you may have heard about the permanence of anything put online, this example of native advertising has been nearly expunged from the Internet. A Web search to locate the actual copy took a considerable amount of digging and was finally located on the Business Insider website at

Why would The Atlantic choose to risk its reputation and alienate its readers by accepting native advertising so contrary to its readership demographic and place it so prominently on its web page with only a small “Sponsor Content” banner above the headline?

One reason, Oliver says, is a study asserting that banner ads are so ineffective that we only intentionally click on them less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the time.

According to the media company Digiday, “native ads are a disruptive advertising unit publishers are using, in part, to eliminate the much-maligned banner. Publishers are working with brands to develop interactive and engaging content that sits on a publisher’s site, looks and feels like an article from that publisher and can be shared like any other type of content. It often comes in the form of pictures, but can also be video or a straight-up article.”

Apparently everyone is doing it. In Oliver’s piece, he has the CEO of Time Inc., Joseph A. Ripp, saying, “As long as the consumer can tell the difference, then I don’t see a problem at all.”

Ripp likes the concept so much that he recently created a native advertising team.

Not to be outdone, Oliver gives airtime to the executive vice president of advertising for the New York Times, Meredith Levien, who exclaims, “Let me start by vigorously refuting the notion that native advertising has to erode consumer trust or compromise the wall that exists between editorial and advertising. Good native advertising is not meant to be trickery. It’s meant to be publishers sharing its story-telling tools with marketers.”

Celebrated author Ken Auletta, who has written the “Annals of Communications” column for The New Yorker for the past 20 years, does not share that opinion. “Native advertising is basically saying to corporations who want to advertise: We will camouflage your ads to make them look like news stories,” Auletta says.

Or, as Oliver put it, “Native advertising is ostensibly normal content stamped with tiny disclaimers containing messages that are clearly endorsements.”

The problem is that the consumer can’t always see the difference. Less than half of the visitors to a news site, Oliver says, could distinguish native advertising from actual news. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone when you consider that, according to the National Science Foundation, one in four Americans doesn’t know the earth orbits the sun.

So where does that leave us in the never-ending quest to balance church and state and generate enough revenue to pay for all the information and opinion we are, by all accounts, drowning in? As Oliver put it, “A press can’t be free and independent if nobody is willing to pay for it.”

The fact is that unlike The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, the boating media does not generally cover matters of state and public policy. We are part of a niche industry, and as that industry goes, so goes our welfare as writers, editors and marketers.

That said, our collective welfare is at risk if we lose the objectivity that our readers pay for and which distinguishes the credibility of our content from straight commercial fare.

In many respects, consumers have already voted with their fingertips. A huge and very profitable industry has blossomed on the Internet in which consumers now go to Trip Advisor for hotel reviews, Yelp for restaurant reviews, Amazon for product reviews and Angie’s List for service providers because they want unbiased opinions about the products and services they are considering purchasing. This could have been the purview of the traditional publishing industry.

Delivering content designed to inform rather than solely persuade is a major challenge facing boating industry marketers. Bringing the media and the industry together to work this out will take something other than an all-industry luncheon and is long overdue.

A small first step may come about as early as this year’s IBEX, when members of Boating Writers International will provide the industry with the opportunity to demonstrate and explain its products and services in a “speed-dating” event that Alan Jones of Boating World magazine is shepherding. We hope this collaborative will build some bridges worth crossing.

Let the conversations begin.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue.


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