In John Oliver’s segment on Last Week Tonight, he discusses the rise of native advertising. That is, disguising an advertisement as a news story. Advertisers adopt the tools of narration to make their ads less conspicuous and more entertaining to the consumer.
Oliver describes the rather grim ramifications of the blurring lines between the “church and state.” Joseph Pulitzer was adamant that the business and advertising side of the media should have no influence over the newsroom, the “church.” The business “state” should have no say in what stories get published. However, this is oftentimes not the case. The delineation between journalism and capitalism has all but vanished.
As much as I would like to fault advertisers for native advertising, the blood is on the readers’ hands. While I agree with John Oliver’s stance that the rise of native advertising has had damaging effects on the media, this blending of church and state is not unprecedented. The extent to which advertisers are going to reach their target audience is certainly challenging ethical standards more than past practices.
The innovation of the Penny Press brought with it a new challenge to newspapers: how to keep subscription costs down while still earning a profit? In “A Brief History of Advertising in America,” William O’Barr describes the practices of James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Bennett raised the cost of advertisements to lower the cost of newspapers. The increase in advertising funding replaced boring, repetitive ads with more attention-grabbing ads. Advertisements were introduced to supplement the lower cost of subscriptions, but with this supplementation comes an obligation to the source of revenue. This onus weighs heavy on the media to this day.
Today’s media environment presents a familiar problem, but with a new twist: how to earn a profit from online media that readers have no interest in paying for?
Online audiences are elusive, so much so that less than one percent of readers click on ads. Personally, I can count on one hand the number of times I have purposefully clicked on an ad. However, I have found myself half way through an article before I realize that it was trying to sell me something.
Fusing the tools of storytelling is certainly trickery, but we’ve seen this throughout history. For example, before Edward Bernays’s implementation of psychology in advertisements, ads tended to be very dry and fact heavy. Laying a Freudian veil over advertisements triggers a new level of emotionality that drives the consumer’s desire for a product, if not for its practical purpose but for how it makes one feel. Advertisers have been exploiting consumers’ emotions for the better part of a century.
The media is trying to earn a profit, just like their advertisers. There is a very fine line between capitalistic practices and manipulation. Consumers should be informed enough to recognize when advertisers are trying to sway them. After all, it is the consumers’ own doing that native advertising exists. If we refuse to pay for content, we must assume to pay the consequences for our thriftiness.