A Response from the Damned: On Bob Garfield’s Moral Shaming of Native Advertisers

In a recent editorial in The Guardian, author and NPR host Bob Garfield brought out some sharp claws to tear native advertising a new one, saying publishers who sell native ad space are engaging in “moral corruption,” “dropping their knickers,” “selling their souls,” and, less colorfully but more directly, “deceiving readers.”

Check the lobbies of these venerable journalistic institutions; the flocked wallpaper and player pianos should be going up any day. This is the decor of desperation.

Ouch, I guess?

Not one to pass up an overwrought metaphor, Garfield begins by describing a scenario where publishers from the top media outlets are gathered together and addressed by the devil himself regarding a new opportunity to bring in more ad revenue. As the dialog (yes, there’s dialog) reveals, all they have to do is agree to “deceive [readers] into reading brand propaganda when they’re expecting arms-length journalism.”

Hang on a second. Is this The Screwtape Letters? Is Bob Garfield actually discussing native advertising with the hellfire-and-brimstone gravitas of a 1940s apologist?

To be clear, his position is hypocritical at best: The Guardian itself publishes native ads, and even Garfield’s own NPR show “On the Money” is underwritten by MailChimp. What’s the difference between a sponsored radio broadcast and sponsored digital content? Should we distrust the content Garfield presents on his show?

But let’s move past Garfield’s misguided sense of self-righteousness and talk about his complaints. They are as follows:

 

1)  If brands are so confident about the quality of their “content,” why don’t they proudly slap their name on it instead of camouflaging it to look like third-party mediated editorial?

They are slapping their names on it. Right at the top, usually. If that’s your idea of camouflaging, I’m glad you’re not in charge of our military uniforms (see, we can dole out lame burns, too).

Garfield mentions, but quickly dismisses, the fact that native ads are labeled as “sponsored content.” It’s unclear what Garfield thinks is so confusing about this term, but apparently it “bespeaks a conspiracy of deception among publishers, advertisers and their agencies.”

I guess we didn’t get invited to the conspiracy meetings. Who organized those? Guessing Satan.

He goes on:

2)  There is no justification for misleading readers, least of all ad efficacy. At stake is the trust earned by the publication over its entire lifespan. If that precious resource is mined and sold, like West Virginia coal (hey! a third metaphor!) it will inevitably be depleted, leaving only a scarred wasteland.

 

I think we’re all in agreement on the fact that readers should not be misled. Again, that’s why native ads are clearly labeled. Honestly, at what point do we trust that the same people who are reading these “venerable publications” are smart enough to understand that a label of “sponsored content” means that the content is sponsored?

Yes, native ads are designed to look like the publication’s content, and yes, that improves click-through rates. But not because users are too dumb to read a label—it’s just a better user experience model so users actually notice the content. They click because they want to read it even though they know it’s sponsored. Is it misleading for Garfield’s editorial piece to look like a real news article?

3)  Under the most optimistic scenario, the money so unchastely earned will be far too little to save anyone.

I can actually think of a more optimistic scenario than that. It happens to also be more in scope with native advertising’s intent:

 

Readers engage with the content they want to (whether sponsored or otherwise), publications have a new advertising option to offer, and brands have a new advertising tool at their disposal.

After all, despite Garfield’s bravado, that’s all we’re really talking about here. The notion that consumer trust is the critical issue is specious. Using credit cards on the Internet was “dangerous” until it wasn’t. In a matter of months, the idea that people won’t “understand” native advertising will seem absurdly naive.

The real challenge is producing notable content that people want to engage with and share. If publications and brands alike don’t maintain high standards for the content in their ads, native advertising will take itself down long before it takes down journalism.

Besides, if overblown rants like Garfield’s haven’t killed journalism, native advertising certainly won’t.