Are 'Natives' friend or foe? - Campbell Squared
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Are ‘Natives’ friend or foe?

Angela Campbell looks at the impact of native advertising (or sponsored content) in our media.

I usually enjoy reading the Sunday Star Times Sunday magazine. It offers interesting, relevant stories and a bit of light relief from the (often depressing) news coverage during the week. Last weekend I opened Sunday, and was taken aback to see, right there in the centrefold, a piece of ‘native advertising’. If this type of content has featured in Sunday before, I haven’t noticed.

In very basic terms, ‘native advertising’ is where companies pay to place their messages in what looks like genuine editorial. It is often (usually very subtly in the top corner) termed ‘sponsored content’. The idea is that stories that look like those written by a journalist are more influential on the reader than what an obvious piece of advertising/marketing is.

American satirist John Oliver said that “no matter how advertising is dressed up, if it’s advertising then it’s not journalism”. On the flip-side, advertisers would argue that if their clients’ messages are high-quality, ‘balanced’ and educational, it doesn’t matter that their purpose is to ultimately sell something/ make a profit.

As strategic communicators, we advise our clients to always be as honest and open as possible. If they have newsworthy information to share, then the media will cover it. Of course the journalist holds the pen, but by engaging and building relationships with media, you can be proactive in getting your message across.

It’s the somewhat ‘sneaky’ nature of native advertising that personally puts me off. In the Sunday piece (sponsored by Microsoft), the heading reads: “The change makers: Stories of New Zealanders doing great things”. Five New Zealand ‘influencers’ are featured, briefly highlighting their significant achievements. The reader is then directed to ‘read more’ (in what is presumably further sponsored content) in upcoming editions of Fairfax magazines such as NZ Life and Leisure.

The Microsoft logo is present but its product launch is mentioned only once in the whole feature. So what does Microsoft get out of this? Well, by associating its brand with New Zealanders who demonstrate the values of humility, community service and innovation, it hopes that the reader will see these values in Microsoft as a company… and buy its products.

Call me cynical, but I don’t buy it (pun intended). Of course, at a time when traditional publishers need new ways to remain profitable, native advertising is an attractive option. It uses their journalists’ writing skills and resources to produce.

So how do consumers feel about it? Some may barely notice, or frankly just not care if what they are reading is ‘independent’ or not. I personally had an emotional reaction when I saw this native advertising in Sunday. My fondness for the magazine was suddenly called into question, and I felt just a tad misled. I lost motivation to continue reading the rest of the issue.

In pure dollar terms, we understand the potential value to the client. Equally, many marketers point to research that claims this form of marketing is actually preferred by consumers. But as public relations practitioners, we look to a bigger picture – the long-term reputation of a client. Surely I am not the only person who feels that native advertising makes me mistrustful, constantly on guard for marketing messages hidden amongst the news and views I thought were (reasonably) independent.

Even with a degree of awareness, I can still be taken in. Just listening to Mike Hosking’s authoritative voice on Newstalk ZB the other morning, advocating the benefits of ‘Lester’s Oil’ health supplement (in a native advertising piece), I caught myself initially believing the hype as his personal recommendation. Upon realising it was sponsored content, my negative reaction was towards the media outlet, not the advertiser.

Understandably, commercial realities dictate. Native advertising is here, it is unavoidable, and indeed it is likely to continue to increase. It is an effective form of marketing for the majority of consumers and there is mutual benefit for advertisers and media publications.

But these publications will need to carefully manage native advertising’s influence in the future. I personally would rather have a mixture of independent journalistic stories, and then advertisements – clearly defined in all their glossy glory. Moderation will be the key, as too much sponsored content risks diluting the media’s credibility… and likeability too.

So, I’ll reserve my judgement on Sunday for now, and stay tuned for what features… or is sponsored, in this weekend’s issue.