BBC economics editor Robert Peston has warned that native advertising could, over time, give the impress that "all editorial is for sale, and none of it to be trusted".
He was delivering the Charles Wheeler lecture for the British Journalism Review last night when he said:
“Native ads” is a terrible Orwellian Newspeak phrase for ads that look like impartial editorial. They could be articles written by a commercial company, or features written about a commercial company by the journalists of a news organisation but sponsored by that company. Or they may be videos either sponsored by a business or produced by the business. Of course each of these will say something like “sponsored content” at the top of the page. But it is very easy to miss this signposting when the article simply pops up in the middle of a run of stories on a website. As a reader, you have to be on your guard to distinguish the native ads from the proper journalism. And many of us may well be in too much of a rush most of the time when online to notice the distinction. Which is, I fear, pernicious.
My concern is that native ads seem to work, in a commercial sense. Take, for example, the new business news online service, Quartz. Much of its editorial is high quality. But what really excites advertising execs and investors is the way that it is able to charge a premium for its native ads, which are – depending on your point of view – either very cleverly or very sinisterly seamlessly integrated into its news service. Yes the native ads are always marked. But as a reader you have to enter the website alert to their existence to be swiftly conscious that they are importantly different from the other articles on the site.
Does that matter, if the native ads provide the resources for Quartz also to produce high-quality proper journalism? Well I fear it might, because over time the impression may be created that all editorial is for sale, and none of it to be trusted.
Now I don’t want to overstate the dangers, but what I would say is that we saw – with the phone-hacking scandal – how prone we are as an industry to cut corners in a hideous way when we face an existential threat, or indeed when there is money to be made. And to reiterate, what I see around the news media scene is the rise of a generation of managers schooled only in the etiquette of the internet, where the idea that editorial staff should be quarantined from marketing and advertising is seen as absurd.