Can Journalism As A Civic Good And Native Advertising Live Side-by-Side?

Do you recognize a so-called native ad when you see one? It’s not as easy it sounds. Back in the day we used to plaster an ADVERTORIAL sign on top of any editorial that was supplied by a marketer. But marketers today want their ads, excuse me, their content, to blend in and fit seamlessly with the rest of the media product.

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Buzzfeed, “the leading social news organization,” is advancing the native advertising ball as aggressively as possible. Which has some traditionalist’s panties in a wad. Last night in New York, as part of a Social Media Week panel, a debate on editorial ethics erupted between journalist/blogger Andrew Sullivan and BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith.

Today, Sullivan reflects:

I am accusing those (media) institutions of pushing as far up to the line between advertorial and editorial as can be even remotely ethically justified. I am accusing them of now hiring writers for two different purposes: writing journalism and writing ad copy. Before things got this desperate/opportunistic, the idea of a magazine hiring writers to craft their clients’ ads rather than, you know, do journalism, would have been unimaginable. A magazine was not an ad agency. But the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model is to be both a journalism site and an ad agency. You can see the reason for the excitement. We can now write purely for corporate clients and that will pay for us to do the rest. And so a CEO at Chevron gets a by-line at the magazine that once gave us Twain and Thoreau.

Again, the need for greater media literacy states its case. Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum argues, “that people who don’t inhale news simply don’t notice bylines. They’re practically invisible.” Too true. Yet, I wonder if the distinction between media company-generated content and marketer-generated content is truly significant outside of the media/marcom bubble. Journalists sometimes forget that they too work for media companies, with strong business agendas, like making payroll. The concept that journalists write purely unadulterated and unbiased copy, while copywriters write crap is so tired at this point. Copy is copy, and it is meant to sell — an idea or a product. May the best writer win.

Adweek’s Charlie Warzel is taking the judicious approach. He believes “for native advertising to succeed, its practitioners need to be mindful that it’s not yet universally accepted, and traditionalists need to unmoor themselves from the idea that native is a corrosive practice that undermines great journalism and see that it could even be its savior.”

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. I think what this ultimately boils down to is whether or not people still have the right to know when something is a paid endorsement. If the native ad, advertorial, or whatever the cute word du jour is these days—if that piece of content would not have appeared if the brand hadn’t cut the publication, website, or whomever a check, then I for one believe people have a right to know that.

    This is the same guideline set forth by the FTC, which instructs compensated bloggers or people who have material connections to brands to disclose the nature of their relationship if they discuss work publicly. If I say on Facebook or Twitter, “AdPulp is an awesome website and you should go check it out sometime,” and had I helped build the website or I were a sometimes contributor to the blog, that’s the kind of thing I have to disclose. I don’t see how native ads or advertorials are any different.

    • Disclosure is needed, but BuzzFeed likely feels it has disclosed via use of the corporate/client byline. More and better disclosure, along with more and better media literacy is the right path here, but I don’t think it’s the one the majority will follow.