On Sunday night on HBO, comedian John Oliver took a pickax to native advertising, arguing that the trendy marketing practice is a threat to the editorial independence of newsrooms, tends to mislead readers, erodes trust, and is a disturbing symptom of the broader financial problems hampering print news organizations as they adapt to the Web. Along the way, he described the mingling of news and advertising as akin to dipping Twizzlers in guacamole (“really gross”) and compared the results to botched heart surgery.
“In news, that is seemingly the model now,” the comedian said on his show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. “Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except, it’s actually more like raisins into a cookie—because nobody f---ing wants them there.”
So what do native-advertising experts think of the critique?
Dan Greenberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Sharethrough, says that in the wake of Oliver’s rant he was inundated with e-mails and phone calls from friends outside the industry. “It’s pretty cool that things are going mainstream,” says Greenberg. “I was actually really happy to see it. I thought one of the cool parts about it was the almost unspoken acceptance of the inevitability of native advertising as a viable long-term form of monetization.”
One of the examples of native advertising that Oliver mocked during the segment is the now infamous piece of sponsored content promoting the virtues of Scientology that ran on the Atlantic’s website in January 2013. Greenberg points out that during the year and a half since that debacle, the industry has worked hard to improve its operating procedures. In December of last year, for instance, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) published its Native Advertising Playbook, aiming to provide the emerging industry with a set of working standards to help improve things such as disclosure to readers. “There are still plenty of bad apples,” says Greenberg. “But the industry has gotten better.”
Among other things, Oliver pummeled native advertising for eroding the traditional “church and state” divide separating the editorial from the business wings of a news organization. Greenberg sees it differently: “What’s actually happening here is that the business side of the world has realized that to survive in the long run, they need to create quality, authentic, real content,” he says. “In some ways, you could say that state has found its religion.”
IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg says he, too, is happy that Oliver and HBO are directing attention on the insular world of Web advertising. “John Oliver did one hell of an impressive job on a subject that’s not a natural for a comedy news show,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I hope we get more of it. Our industry needs to stop listening to itself, and get a better sense of how the real world looks at and listens to us.”
“All that said, the subject is obviously a lot more complicated than can be dealt with fully in a short comic piece,” Rothenberg added. “Some forms of editorially focused ‘native advertising’ have been around for decades; I think the New York Times pioneered the form with the famous Herb Schmertz-authored ads for Mobil Oil on the Op-Ed page back in the 1970s. They were controversial in their day, but showed it’s eminently possible to protect institutional integrity and provide a platform for paid points of view.”
Throughout the 11-minute segment, Oliver ignored the broader world of native advertising that exists on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and instead focused his critique on premium news organizations such as the New York Times, Time Inc., and the Atlantic.
At one point, Oliver aimed the criticism directly at BuzzFeed, which makes all of its revenue from a form of native advertising known as branded content. The ensuing mockery featured a screen shot of BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti. “His face is like BuzzFeed itself,” said Oliver. “Successful. Appealing. And yet somehow, you want to punch it.”
“John Oliver is a very talented comic, advertising is an easy target, and he had some fun,” he responded via e-mail. “I’m also very flattered he finds my face appealing.”