There’s Only One Way To Stop Native Advertising From Ruining Journalism: Embrace It

There’s Only One Way To Stop Native Advertising From Ruining Journalism: Embrace It

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What's more dangerous for journalism, native advertising or brands cutting publishers out of the equation altogether?

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Shane Snow is going to save journalism — that is, if he doesn’t destroy it first.

Snow is the chief creative officer of Contently, a New York firm specialising in that most distrusted and despised of advertising products: Sponsored content. And with big names like Coca-Cola, Walmart, and General Motors as clients, Contently is arguably at the top of this dubious field.

Sponsored content (or “native advertising” or “content marketing”) refers to articles that often look like pieces of independent journalism, but are in fact commissioned or produced by a brand. For example, Coca-Cola might write a piece called, “10 Reasons to Drink Diet Coke This Holiday Season,” and pay Buzzfeed to host it on its site. The list would look like any other Buzzfeed article with the exception of a subtle disclosure stating it was paid for by Coke. Sounds harmless, right?

Not always. In 2013, the Atlantic published a fawning profile of Scientology leader David Miscavige, produced and paid for by the Church of Scientology itself. Because of the numerous controversies associated with the Church — not least of which being its aggressive efforts to silence and smear journalists — readers were appalled that the Atlantic would accept it as a client. The post was removed less than 24 hours later.

Yet for all the attention paid to sponsored stories that live directly on news sites, increasingly brands are launching their own publications — CocaCola Quarterly, if you will — which in some ways is even more troubling. When news sites host the content, at least they’re held accountable when an article fails to meet acceptable standards of truth or transparency. But who needs those standards when brands make their own content sites, like General Electric’s “award-winning online magazine” GE Reports? I haven’t aggressively fact checked its articles, but I think it’s safe to assume the “award” was something other than a Pulitzer.

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