You may or may not have heard of ‘native advertising’ yet but chances are you’ve already encountered it, and often1.
In a recent survey by OPA, just under 75% of US publishers self-report that their sites featured native advertising, with a possibility of that number reaching 90% by year end2.
So, what is native advertising3? It is a paid-for placement that appears on a publisher’s site or content stream, its appearance being ‘native’ to its visual surroundings. Along with residing on the publisher’s - not the marketer’s - site, it is designed to be discovered and shared in the same ways as regular content. It is also promoted alongside the site’s editorial content, though identified as ‘sponsored content’ or as created by ‘marketing partners’4.
One of the promises of native advertising is that it’ll significantly contain the pestilence of banner ads on the Web. No longer will we have to suffer visually screechy intrusions to our attention, nor will publishers have to sell them for next to nothing.
Native advertising, it is also being touted, could be a saviour for online publishing and lead to a win-all for almost everyone (except, of course, ad agencies who may see their role as intermediaries between marketers and online publishers all but vaporise5.)
It is not all smooth sailing, of course. A drumbeat of opposition comes from advocates of old-school journalism, who revere the rigid church-and-state line of separation between editorial and advertising. To them, this is a textbook definition of a slippery slope6.
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In Game Theory 101, the choice of driving on the left or the right side of the road is often presented as a coordination problem, one in which both players stand to derive mutual gain (and road safety) by mutually agreeing on one, while remaining indifferent to any specific choice7.
But for most of history and up to the 18th century, the choice of which side of the road to ride on was more than just a problem of coordination, it was fundamentally a question of trust.
Which is why almost everyone rode on the left of the road8. In case they encountered highwaymen or aggressors on their way, this placed them with their right arms in the best position to defend with sword or knife. (Paradoxically, staying to the left also made it easier to be the attacked as one would be to the ‘right’ side of oncoming traffic.)
The rise of multi-horse carriages changed this dynamic9 (with the drivers preferring to stay right), but a papal edict in 1300 firmly established riding on the left as the law of the land10.
The French Revolution, which sought to rebuild society based on new egalitarian principles, brought an abrupt end to several artefacts and accepted norms of life. One of the casualties was the left of the road custom11.
Napoleon decreed by royal order that this game of mistrust would no longer be enacted on roads in the European continent. His army was instructed to march on the right side of the road as a sign of trust and goodwill12. This “civilised” practice spread far and wide, though the British and their erstwhile colonies still choose to be left behind13.
The church-and-state line of divide between editorial and advertising in the media, likewise, imposed a Napoleonic bargain in the way we navigate the world of news and information.
It was a coordination game, but also much more. We could safely encounter an armada of oncoming information in our daily lives and rarely have reason to mistrust its sources or intent. We stayed to the right, doffed our hats and chose to engage with content or advertising as we desired, with no worry about mistaking one for the other14.
One consequence of native advertising is a return to a bottom-up pre-Napoleonic state of affairs.
But isn’t this a fatal blow to the idea of journalistic ethics? Won’t we end up swimming in endless torrents of corporate propaganda endlessly repackaged and subverted as editorial content?
Unlikely. As minor league Robin Hoods through the centuries realised, it takes two to play a game of coordination and trust. There are no unilateral decisions.
Our new tripartite pact with journalism and native advertising will definitely not have the crisp starched principles that some of us fondly remember. But there’s no reason to believe it will be any less real, or helpful.
Millions of micro-interactions and negotiations between readers and a daily torrent of news will determine where the equilibrium of this new bargain lies. Far from being a rigid and straight line running only through the organisation charts of media companies, the division of what constitutes the useful and the promoted can and will be made in the marketplace, and by readers.