Our media's sad, unsavoury relationship with 'native' ad content

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We all know an uncle or aunt who not only has a drinking problem, but denies it and has family members who ignore or enable the unhealthy behaviour.

These days I'm feeling like mainstream media in Canada is a bunch of drunken uncles, not incapacitated and embarrassing from alcohol consumption, but from their addiction to "native" ad content.

The CBC's recent Olympics deal with Sport Chek is the latest example. For the Rio Olympics, Sports Chek gave up on 30-60 advertising spots and instead produced "sizzle reels" -- rapidly edited clips with close-up shots of Canadian athletes displaying a range of intense emotions.

The thing is, those reels were created by Sport Chek (owned by Canadian Tire) in a "war room" inside CBC, using CBC content.

The idea of these reels, Fredick Lecoq, a senior VP for Canadian Tire, explained to The Globe and Mail, is for broadcasters to "better integrate brands within their programs."

"I used to talk to the guy who was selling ads," he said. "Now I'm talking to the production guys."

What that means is that Sport Chek is trying to make its ads look less like ads and more like actual CBC content.

That's the whole point of "native" ad content -- to fool viewers or readers into thinking that what they're watching isn't actually brand advertising, but all part of the coverage... in this case, coverage of the Olympics. To do that, CBC, a publicly owned corporation, has let Sport Chek use its facilities and content. 

But CBC isn't the only media company that has embraced native advertising. They're just the latest drunk uncle to the bar. In fact, when The Globe and Mail did a story about the CBC/Sport Chek deal it did so without irony, comment or critique. Which isn't surprising since it's hard for the pot to call the kettle drunk ass.

In April, 2014 The Globe and Mail published a piece called "Why one resort changed only five bulbs in two years." The piece wasn't really a Globe and Mail story, it was a piece of native advertising produced by GE. The piece ran online with a thin pale yellow banner stating it was sponsored content and a small "Brought to you by" with a GE logo on it. But I doubt most readers didn't noticed. 

This is a medium in which whole banner ads are ignored by page visitors. Little logos and pale ribbons won't even be on most folks' radar screens.

And, besides, the whole intention of the piece, thin pale banner or not, is to make readers think it's a real Globe and Mail piece. 

In fact, The Globe and Mail has a whole team of writers the paper will happily rent out to companies that want content created for them.

Even worse, a year earlier Postmedia basically handed over its energy coverage to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. A leaked PowerPoint presentation makes that clear. The title reads: "Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Postmedia 2013 Energy Channel Sponsorship: Positioning Canada at the Forefront of Energy"

Of course, Postmedia argues that partnerships like this don't hurt its journalistic integrity. Globe and Mail management makes the same argument.

The Globe argues that none of the content is produced by newsroom journalists, so they're squeaky clean.

Even the New York Times is slipping into full denial mode. 

In a recent presentation called "The Challenging New Economics of Journalism," Mark Thompson, the CEO for The Grey Lady, wrote:

"[W]e believe that the digital advertising of the future will be dominated by stories conceived by advertisers, clearly labelled so they can be distinguished from newsroom journalism, but consumed alongside that journalism on their own merits."

All of this, of course, is like a church saying that there's nothing wrong with it running a profitable brothel in a room just off the manse.

But there is something wrong. Imagine, for example, that instead of letting Sport Chek produce "sizzle reels" at the CBC during the Olympics, the Crown corporation let Tim Hortons produce "happy" news spots for The National in an editing bay just down the hall from Peter Mansbridge.

Mainstream media can't have it both ways. They can't claim the "native" content is clearly labelled so as to avoid consumer confusion and, at the same time sell advertisers on the paper's strong brand history of great storytelling and writing.

It can't pretend that increasingly depending on native content to boost its bottom line will have no impact on how it produces news. Already, for example, freelancers who want to make a living have learned that native content creation pays way better than real journalism. And Postmedia's deal with the petroleum devil shows exactly what can happen when you take a slide down the well-oiled slope.

In the end, it's all sad and unsavoury, like Uncle Jim at a wedding, face down in a punch bowl, in his underpants claiming he just slipped.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: filip bossuyt/flickr

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