There isn’t a lot of money in journalism these days. The Internet has forced the print editions of newspapers and magazines to either close down their shops or move online. And even when they do launch themselves into cyberspace, they find that people don’t want to pay for information that they can find on Twitter for free.
It doesn’t help that the traditional way to monetize online content — display advertisements, like the one below this sentence — aren’t very effective. Only 0.1 percent of banner ads are clicked; 85 percent of those clicks come from just 8 percent of Internet users.
And on mobile devices, which account for an ever-increasing share of Internet traffic, roughly half of all display ad clicks are accidental.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was wandering around the Internet on Monday night and saw this on The New Republic‘s homepage:
Right there, placed along with some of the best journalism the Internet has to offer, is a sponsored post from Credit Suisse, which paid The New Republic more than enough for that spot to cover the rest of the articles on the page — no annoying banner ads needed.
The post is part of the online journalism community’s workaround to the problem posed by no one clicking on gaudy display ads: native advertising. Native ads are posts that look like regular content that the site would otherwise publish, but are actually marketing materials either based on or fully supplied by the company that pays for the placement.
In case you missed it, John Oliver had a great explainer on native ads not too long ago:
This particular native ad was one of the less misleading ones I’ve come across. The post is categorized as “sponsored content” on the homepage, and the article itself includes a disclaimer right at the top that reads: “This article is sponsored by Credit Suisse.” So it isn’t as if The New Republic was passing off a fluff piece as an article that they would have otherwise written for free.
And yet, the ethical dilemma is still obvious: It’s a shame that one of my favorite news outlets is selling their name and reputation to a massive corporation that wants to increase its market share in a targeted audience, but without ads like these, The New Republic either wouldn’t be able to pay its bills or would have to charge a subscription for its online arm. This would take away access to its content from the vast majority of Internet users who, like me, aren’t likely to pay for their news and analysis.
The dilemma gets even murkier when the content embeds subtle references to how awesome the company sponsoring the ad is with information that I would have actually have wanted had it not been delivered in the form of an ad. Take this passage, for example:
Although much of the nation lacks laws to protect LGBT people, corporations have begun to adopt their own protective practices nationwide. In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign released the first Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which rated companies based on the inclusiveness of their sexual orientation policies. The index inspired hundreds of businesses to become more transparent, providing more information about their practices to consumers.
Credit Suisse was one of those businesses. It has had a perfect score on the CEI for 10 years in a row. Just over a year ago, though, the bank decided to go one step further than its peers. In October 2013, it released its own index to track the performance of LGBT-friendly companies. It also unveiled the Credit Suisse LGBT Equality Portfolio to allow its clients to invest in a basket of companies with high scores on the CEI and high capital appreciation potential.
The LGBT Equality Index would be pretty cool on its own, and it got its fair share of organic coverage when it launched, but Credit Suisse wants to make damn sure that you know who’s responsible for it. And, of course, they want a few more people to invest in their portfolio. That wouldn’t be so bad if it were sliced up and repackaged in a Buzzfeed listicle — by the way, Buzzfeed makes a majority of its revenue through native advertising — but when corporate humblebragging is designed to look like serious journalism, I feel like I need to take a shower after clicking through.
So what do we do? This is the nature of the business we’re in, and it isn’t likely to get better any time soon. As users become more savvy in avoiding overt ads, and as monetizing the Internet becomes increasingly competitive, news outlets are going to feel increasing pressure to take the money they can get by injecting marketing materials into their content, further blurring the line between journalism and corporatism.
After all, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.