Could native advertising get political? Or has it already?
Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30
'Ten reasons why Labour has done a good job in Government'. 'Should you vote hard left in #GE2016?'. 'Five Fianna Fail policies that will make you think the recession never happened'.
These are the kind of unsubtle headlines you can expect if Irish publications ever start to offer sponsored content to political parties and election candidates. They make for uncomfortable reading.
Publishers and politicians on the other side of the Atlantic have no such qualms, however. BuzzFeed recently announced it'll be offering political native advertising ahead of the US elections next year.
BuzzFeed has built a business model on branded content, rather than display ads. And thanks to the elections, an estimated $1bn will be spent on digital ads in the US in 2016. So it's a move that makes commercial sense.
Plus, native ads are on the up. Business Insider last year predicted that the native ad market in the US alone would be worth $10.7bn in 2015, potentially growing to $21bn in 2018.
As a result, BuzzFeed is in prime position to capitalise on the needs of politicians and advocacy groups to reach out to a generation that has eschewed traditional media.
But this isn't anything new for BuzzFeed. In 2012 Obama for America used the platform to run campaign videos - albeit with a clear flag to readers that they were looking at a native ad.
They were at pains to point it out. One video with the headline "What Mitt Romney's 'Binders full of women' says about his views", featured three disclaimers above the fold. "Paid political content" one said; "Political ad paid for by Obama for America" said another. While the byline read "Obama for America, Political Advertiser". It seems you can't be too careful, when it comes to tagging your native ad as an ad.
There's plenty of research to show you've got to balance on tiptoes when negotiating this minefield. Contently, a New York-based firm that specialises in branded content, released research that found 48pc of respondents felt deceived upon realising a piece of content was sponsored by a brand.
But perhaps native advertising's image is improving; the same survey conducted last year found that 63pc in fact, felt deceived.
And sponsored content may not just backfire on political hopefuls; publishers also run the risk of ruining their credibility. Contently found that 62pc of readers think a news site loses credibility when it publishes native ads.
So are BuzzFeed and other publishers who engage in native advertising destroying their own credibility?
The answer is clearly yes, if they're doing it poorly. But good native ads? That's a different story.
So what makes a good native ad? The best in breed share two characteristics: they are transparently and unapologetically associated with a particular product or brand, and they offer readers an enjoyable or insightful experience.
Netflix recently produced one such native campaign with the Wall Street Journal. The sponsored content promoted the gritty drugs drama Narcos, which charts the rise of Pablo Escobar and his Medellín drug cartel. The native piece was called Cocaineomics. It gives a detailed account of the logistics of cocaine smuggling, Pablo Escobar's political ambitions, and charts the miracle of Medellín's economic comeback. Using text, video, infographics and slick animation, the piece acts as an informative appendix to the show for viewers who are already hooked, and an engaging taster for those who might be interested.
But there's a difference between promoting a TV show and a political candidate. Consumers may be happy to take a punt on entertainment. But whether the same tactics will lead them to take a punt on a political candidate is unclear. Certainly, native advertising is unlikely to change the minds of the most polarised voters.
On one level a detailed examination of bills and policies is the ideal matter for a native ad. But there is an ethical question of whether this sort of advertising should be countenanced, given that we've left the realm of commerce and entered one of governance.
It's also easy for us in Ireland to scoff at the financial feeding frenzy that is electioneering in the United States. Native political advertising - like attack ads - can be easily earmarked as a tactic that could never catch on here.
But before we pat ourselves on the back too much, perhaps its worth thumbing through the Sunday papers today and counting up the number of op-eds from politicians and those with overt political affiliations.
Perhaps we do have our own brand of native political ads. Sitting TDs, junior ministers, members of the Cabinet - none of them find it too hard to get their opinions across in print when the mood takes them.
Of course, there's a clear difference in that money may not be changing hands. But we all know where its author is coming from, and we clearly know their agenda. Whether their message is entertaining or informative is another matter.
Sunday Indo Business