Last Wednesday, The New York Times launched a redesigned website that features a simpler interface, faster loading times, an option to browse comments while scrolling through an article, and other tweaks meant to make the act of reading the news more delightful. While these upgrades are neither terribly innovative nor unique, perhaps the most noteworthy change to accompany the relaunch is the inclusion of native advertising—a first for nytimes.com.
Scattered about the site are still traditional banner ads powered by Google and little boxes that direct readers to URLs devoted to Capital One or Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, but now readers will also come across articles paid for and posted by Dell Inc.
In one of the sponsored ads titled "Will Millennials Ever Completely Shun the Office?," for example, author Kim Anderson, who, according to her bio, is a New York-based freelancer with a B.A. from Stanford, outlines the reasons behind young people's ambivalence toward commuting to work. Besides a clear disclaimer wrapped in a blue bar at the top of the article and a note at the bottom stating that the above was produced by the Times' advertising department in collaboration with Dell without any involvement from the newspaper's editorial staff, the content itself looks and feels just like a regular, non-sponsored article. It has a headline, a picture, a byline, and reported information that relies on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics and a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. While the article discusses the transforming power of technology, it never mentions Dell by name.
A study found that many people are confused about the difference between paid and unpaid content, and 50 percent of those surveyed didn't even understand what the word "sponsor" means.
Last December, in an attempt to quell any qualms over the potential smudging of traditional content with branded content through the introduction of native advertising, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. sent a letter to his employees explaining that there would be a "strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads."
Except, this is nothing new. Various forms of native advertising—also known as advertorials—have been around for a long time. The Guardianreports that in 1917 the Federal Trade Commission settled a first-of-its-kind case with Muensen Speciality Co. for disguising an ad for a vacuum cleaner as a positive newspaper review. In 1941, the New Yorkerpublished an ad for Thomas' Protein Bread that, at a glance, looks deceptively similar to a regular article. Then, in 2013, the publication posted an online article describing how the cloud can benefit the field of pediatrics, presented by IBM. The New York Times itself has been publishing native ads in its print edition for decades now.
According to a July 2013 study conducted by the Online Publishers Association—whose members include Hearst, Condé Nast, and the New York Times—73 percent of its members already use online native advertising, and 17 percent were considering employing the strategy by the end of the year. In other words, if native advertising was ever an anomaly, it's now pretty standard.
THE STRONGEST ARGUMENT AGAINST branded content is that it’s just that: branded content, designed to seamlessly fit into the context of a publication. Its success depends on capturing the eyeballs of inattentive readers as they skim through a site perhaps unaware of what's sponsored and what's not. The more an ad is distinguished as an ad, the less likely a reader is to read it because, well, it’s an ad.
Last December, the FTC ran a one-day workshop titled Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?, which reportedly "raised more questions than it answered." At the conference, David Franklyn, director of the McCarthy Institute for Intellectual Property and Technology Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, presented a study that found many people are confused about the difference between paid and unpaid content, and that 50 percent of those surveyed didn't even understand what the word "sponsor" means.
And who could forget the immense backlash TheAtlantic received in early 2013 after posting a sponsored piece on Scientology that admired the movement's steady growth? The ad was removed within 12 hours, and the publication issued an apology that began with the sentence, "We screwed up."
To Pam Horan, however, who serves as president of the Online Publishers Association, sponsored articles can benefit everyone if they're just as valuable and informative to the reader as the non-sponsored content surrounding them.
"When publishers collaborate with marketers to develop these experiences, they are lending their knowledge of their readers—and the content they value—to ensure that the consumer receives relevant and compelling native ads," Horan wrote in an email. "But it must be done in a transparent and authentic way in order to maintain trust, which is an essential component of publisher’s relationships with their readers."
Native advertising or not, newspapers and magazines have always maintained a complicated relationship with the brands that finance them. So perhaps the most interesting thing to watch in the coming months and years will be how advertisers adjust to the public adjusting to native ads online. Once readers get used to identifying them—and as they become more widespread, you’d imagine they will—then what? An online native ad without the ambiguity becomes the Web equivalent of a full-page magazine ad. Unless, of course, ad firms can find some miraculous way of providing prose that both promotes their brand and leaves the reader feeling as though she wasn't duped into reading an ad. Then, well, check back with me in a couple of years.