Advertising has always been a troubled industry, constantly fighting its demons. For a good part of the 20th century, it’s been questioning the morality of helping to sell bad things – a theme so brilliantly explored throughout the Mad Men series.
Recently, it appears, it’s been facing a new demon. And a new moral dilemma – the one of relevance and credibility.
Separation of church and state
In the past few years, "native advertising" has been one of the most talked-about buzz phrases in the industry. While much of the most fervent hype around it has died down, the idea behind it is far from dead. And it’s not a new idea either. In fact, the very first forms of native ads looked very much like this article.
Commercial messages, carried by various forms of media, have always been deemed less relevant – even undesirable – to audiences. One way of tackling this challenge is to make ads appear more relevant by making them look like editorial content. The other is to make them more desirable by creating great content.
Needless to say, media have never liked the former. Clear separation of editorial and advertising content has always been one of the core policies of any respectable publication. But as they struggle to attract advertising revenue, they have reluctantly embraced it.
Sticking "sponsored content" over such ads has perhaps helped them to save face, but the line has been crossed.
Form follows function
The ultimate purpose of advertising is to sell things. In the digital age, the most common currency used as a proxy for a sale is a click. Native ads are said to generate twice, even three times, the number of clicks as non-native ads.
If the function of ads is to generate clicks, the success of native ads surely legitimises their use. Commercial messages, whatever their form, have always been seen as a necessary evil by media. If this new form brings in more revenue, so be it.
However, the question is: "How sustainable is such success?" Audiences will not be deceived forever. Once they develop a "native ad blindness" – and that day is not far away – the decision of media to embrace native ads may well backfire.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
If native ads pose an uncomfortable moral dilemma for media, they present an even bigger one for brands.
Advertising is one of the key channels for brands to communicate with their consumers. It’s a reflection of their values, their image, their uniqueness. It tells their story. In choosing to make their stories look more relevant to consumers by imitating editorial content, brands have simply made them more generic and uniform.
By using native ads, they have arguably surrendered one of their most potent tools to communicate their uniqueness.
Great advertising has always been about great content. Content that can match great editorial – and, occasionally, outshine it. Content that is not inferior in any way. But by imitating editorial content, advertising is admitting to an inferiority complex – that advertising content is less valuable, less credible, less relevant.
In the brilliant last scene of the Mad Men finale, Don Draper finally makes peace with his demons. He accepts that he’s an ad man, and goes on to create one of the best ads ever produced. Let this serve as inspiration for the whole industry.
Whatever the form, as long as there is substance, commercial messages will always be relevant. And credible.
by Matevz Klanjsek, co-founder, Celtra