Published: Nov. 18, 2016

Photo of various forms of mediaNative advertising is a promising alternative to traditional advertising, for both advertisers and news publications. But the practice’s very effectiveness can make it deceptive, endangering journalistic credibility, say a group of journalists and advertising and public relations executives interviewed by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Baylor University.

In today’s digital media environment, news organizations can no longer rely on strong revenues from print and web banner ads. Advertisers find it increasingly difficult to break through to audiences. In response, many advertisers and publications are turning to native advertising, which looks like a publication’s regular content and captures more audience attention than traditional ads.

To understand how native advertising is perceived in the affected industries, Erin Schauster and Pat Ferrucci of CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information and Marlene Neill of Baylor University interviewed 56 anonymous journalists, advertising and public relations executives. The team then analyzed those interviews to find common themes. The results are presented in a new paper, published in a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist dedicated to native advertising.

"The most surprising finding was the fact that they agreed,” said Erin Schauster, an assistant professor of advertising at CMCI. “It’s a deceptive practice. Most, but not all, respondents agreed on that."

One of the advertising executives interviewed summarized the ethical concern by stating, “I think a lot of consumers don’t know the difference, and I think that advertising should be explicit, and I think that when someone’s looking at the ad, they should know that they’re looking at an ad.”

Of course, opinions also diverged on such a contentious topic. Many journalists interviewed feared that native advertising could undermine the credibility of news publications and make readers distrustful even of true news stories. However, advertising and public relations executives often said that native advertising is a beneficial storytelling tool when done well.

Members of both groups also suggested that native advertising may be “a necessary evil” as traditional advertising revenues decline. And some of those interviewed also wondered if the ethical responsibility for native ads fell to publishers, rather than advertisers or reporters.

"It’s not journalism. It’s not produced by journalists. It pays the bills,” said one journalist interviewed by the researchers.

Schauster, a former advertising executive who has studied other ethical issues in the advertising industry, cautions that interviews with 56 practitioners is not a conclusive exploration of native advertising. But it does raise interesting questions and suggests trends to explore further.

“While the responses we heard about the efficacy of native advertising is alarming, it does have some truth to it that we, as advertisers, have to deliver good content,” Schauster said. “We have to deliver content that the audience wants to engage with. We just have to do it in a respectful, transparent, honest way.”