The Native Advertising Argument Is Far From Over

Andrew Sullivan, Ben Smith face off in spirited debate

Every so often the stars align and the panel gods break the monotonous cycle of dispassionate, talking point-riddled "new media" discussions. Such was the case last night during a spirited debate on native advertising between blogger Andrew Sullivan and BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith.

Much ink has already been spilled on the subject by Sullivan, panel moderator and Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson, and others. While many focused on the heated and refreshing nature of the exchange between Smith and Sullivan, the argument seems to perfectly illustrate the bubble-thinking mentality of the media and advertising elites and should be a wake-up call to publishers that the native ad game is far from universally accepted.

Native advertising is the breakout word of 2012, a savior for the banner-weary publishers and advertisers. Helped along by its pioneers like BuzzFeed, native has become more than just a promising alternative but an opportunity to support the newsrooms of the 21st century. At companies like Contently, scores of freelance journalists are paying the bills writing researched and reported native ad copy for companies like IBM, which are paying better than most news organizations. Native is getting average Joes to click on, view and in some cases share advertising, long a challenge in the online ad business. It's easy to see why Madison Avenue and publishers are getting riled up.

However, discussions like last night's between Sullivan and Smith and controversies like the Atlantic's bobbling of its native Scientology ad are a reminder that so much of this recent talk is inside baseball for a sizeable majority of media consumers (read: the people who are viewing these ads). In other words, the average person doesn't know that some of the content they are encountering on Web publications is actually advertising. Consider, for example, that the video of the confrontation has only had some 350 views on YouTube.  

Last night, Sullivan argued that "if journalism is not understood to be separate from advertising, then it has lost something incredibly important in a democratic society." His point is echoed by some other traditional journalists, along with the idea that native advertising is essentially designed to dupe readers into reading sponsored work, and it's a valid concern.

Smith was dismissive of Sullivan's native ad concerns, though. While it's Smith's job to defend the BuzzFeed brand and the process that has allowed him to keep the lights on and paying his reporters, his combative attitude is common among native advertising advocates, who appear baffled that casual readers could mistake branded content for original, independent editorial. In fact, in a post mortem from the panel, Thompson, the moderator, noted, "I consider myself a decently savvy consumer of Internet, and I've mistaken a BuzzFeed ad for an article before," suggesting that native ad confusion is fairly common.

Still, many following the discussion at the Social Media Week event at BuzzFeed's New York headquarters or on Twitter made light of Sullivan's extended rant against native ads and BuzzFeed's practice. Smith quickly pointed out Sullivan's unique position in the media landscape while insinuating the powerhouse blogger is out of touch. "I mean, this is a great argument against virtually the entire media industry except The Dish," Smith quipped.

The old-school journalist denial argument is also valid. Digiday's Brian Morrissey noted last week that "journalists need Advertising 101," arguing that "the idea that journalists can remain aloof from their real industry—and that’s advertising, for the most part—is a fallacy." While Sullivan's model exists in its own bubble, the reality is that many publishers may need to rethink their principled stance against anything crossing the line between editorial and advertising, given the current economic climate in journalism. 

Addressing his recent move to New York, Sullivan told the crowd last night he has been disturbed by everything he's learned about the business end of today's media business. While the two sides eventually kissed and made up last night, the most disturbing part of the exchange wasn't the passionate discussion—which many might argue is great for the industry—but the seemingly unflappable dedication of both sides. 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.