Native or naïve

alice-in-wonderland-drink-meI realize we live in a dumbed society inhabited by the likes of Honey Boo-Boo and Dog the Bounty Hunter, but are Americans so naïve they need to be protected from native advertising?

I know there have been some instances of highly deceptive practices by companies posting fake review on Yelp, for example. But, I was truly stunned by a recent New York Times column that decried a native advertising program by Shape Magazine and take a look at the full-page ad that sparked such a sensation. It’s entitled, ‘Water works!’

The ad speaks to the health benefits of staying hydrated throughout the day, but it also identifies a problem: 20 percent of Americans don’t like the taste of water. The solution? Four varieties of Shape Water Boosters: Beauty, Wellness, Slim and Energy, guaranteed to make your water more tasty.
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The National Advertising Division, the investigative arm of the ad industry’s voluntary regulation system, came down hard on Shape, saying the ad ‘blurred the lines between advertising and editorial content in a way which could confuse consumers.’

To which I respond, gimme a break. While the page may indeed be headlined: ‘Live Healthy News,’ it’s clearly an ad. In fact, the accompanying photograph could be used to adorn the cover of a college textbook on the subject of advertising. It’s that obvious.

I admire the efforts of such groups as the Federal Trade Commission, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and the National Advertising Division. But, methinks they’re taking things a tad too far.

Long ago, advertising legend David Ogilvy said, ‘The Consumer isn’t stupid. She’s your wife.’

Honey Boo-Boo and Dog the Bounty Hunter notwithstanding, I remain convinced the average American is still smart enough to tell the difference between an ad and editorial copy (especially when it’s as obvious as the Shape example).

And, if a company really does blur the lines in blatant, deceptive ways, let’s turns the FTC watchdogs loose to do their thing.

6 thoughts on “Native or naïve

  1. I’d be interested to see what The National Advertising Division considers a “good” example of native advertising. Something that has a 60-pt disclaimer blaring “THIS IS AN AD” at the very top? The way they responded you would think Shape Magazine was selling cigarettes to toddlers.

  2. The best advice I think I’ve ever heard on this subject is, “Never underestimate your audience’s intelligence. Never overestimate their knowledge.” One of the problems the FTC has tried to tackle is what happens when people skim the headline or first part of an article, for instance, when it comes to proper disclosure. Since that’s how magazines and newspapers are meant to be ready, the FTC has tried to wrestle with how to get proper disclosure but also account for people who may read a heading and first paragraph and then move on.

    Dmitriy, to your point, the New York Times approach has been particularly lauded on this front. It doesn’t go overboard in underestimating the audience’s intelligence; but it tries to make it as clear as possible without being un-user friendly that content involves a paid relationship. (See here: http://adage.com/article/media/york-times-debuts-native-ad-units-dell/290973/

    I’d flip the question, though: Since Shape is so blatantly praising its own products through editorial content, what in the world would they have to lose by complying with transparent disclosure guidelines. I can’t imagine anyone who would check out the article would be bothered by the disclosure, and it absolutely ensures no one misconstrued the placement in the meantime…

  3. Steve, I think you missed the boat on this one. The editors of Shape need to spend 30 days in publishing jail (i.e. hand delivering newspapers at 4 a.m.) for letting this one get past them. The content should have simply been labeled “advertisement.” That would have solved all the problems.

    But, as it is, it’s outright fraud. There’s no difference between Shape’s shenanigan’s and a financial advisor (FA) goading a client into a sketchy investment just so the FA can “earn” the commission.

  4. And, I think you’ve downshifted into the wrong gear, Matt. I think there’s a very fine line between what used to be called advertorials and what’s now known as native advertising. There’s also a very fine line between Big Brother deciding what consumers can and cannot read and letting the free enterprise system do its thing. The average fifth grader could tell the Shape ad is just that, an ad.

  5. Steve, I am not a big fan of information asymmetry. It makes “free enterprise” quite inefficient.