Is it game over for native advertising?

Is native advertising the saviour of publishers and brands – or a marketing missile that’s already starting to misfire? Emily weighs the evidence.

Is it game over for native advertising?

Released in October 2014, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a videogame based on the popular Lord of the Rings fictional universe. It’s a big budget, mainstream game that sees players take control of Talion, a ranger of Gondor, and exact revenge against the forces of darkness that killed Talion’s family… and him.

Developed by Monolith and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Shadow of Mordor attracted unexpected controversy when certain PR and marketing tactics for the game were revealed.

Essentially, YouTubers who asked for review copies of the game received a contract that would turn their normally-independent review into a PR-controlled puff piece, apparently paid for by PR firm Plaid Social Labs.

The kicker? That ‘sponsorship’ wasn’t to be revealed anywhere in the video – but hidden far down in the video’s description, where the casual viewer was unlikely ever to see it.

Native advertising had come to the world of videogames.

What is native advertising?

Native advertising has been billed as the saviour of media struggling to make money in the digital age of free content. It’s also a means for brands to get their messages and products in front of people who may otherwise ignore more traditional forms of advertising.

Originally seen as a way to replace dwindling revenue from banner ads, native advertising normally involves publications publishing content by and paid for by brands onto the publication’s website.

This content is often, visually, and stylistically, indistinguishable from regular editorial on the website, with signposting that it is native advertising often difficult to see. And in the case of general news sites that publish native advertising, more than half of visitors don’t know when they’re reading native advertising.

Native advertising itself is branching out into other online and offline formats. Just last week, The New York Times ran its first print version of a native advertisement.

It appears that many in marketing and PR can’t resist the temptation of the benefits offered by native advertising: beguiling audiences with on brand messaging that audiences don’t realise is advertising. Yet it should be noted that in the US, the FTC is keeping a close eye on the matter, as part of its mission to protect consumers from “deceptive” business practices.

Most of these issues are beautifully summed up in satirist John Oliver’s recent video on native advertising:

Back in Mordor…

Using YouTube stars to record videos that feature paid-for brand messaging is enticing to game companies, because viewers trust the video hosts more than traditional celebrities or brands.

As Natalie Mortimer has discussed on the marketing-industry website The Drum, endorsement of a product by a YouTuber is like a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend.

And as Jim Sterling, a games critic for The Escapist (an entertainment website for millennials) says, this kind of practice is “[…] a reality of the business now.”

Except when the terms dictated by PRs are, as Jim Sterling succinctly describes the Shadow of Mordor video  situation, “bollocks”.

Jim’s concerns about the YouTuber contracts for Shadow of Mordor echo those of leading B2B content marketer Doug Kessler, who has discussed several times this year why he feels so uncomfortable with native advertising.

Doug believes native advertising jeopardises the relationship between customers, brands and the media, because it “sacrifices the trust” of readers by hiding brands’ involvement in what appears to be independent editorial.

You may wonder, why do people fall for it? As Jim Sterling said about Shadow of Mordor’s video brand deals:

“[…] YouTube is already one of the most influential outlets out there. Those who became big on YouTube are taste makers and trendsetters to a far greater degree than any other form of videogame media before it. And they have followings, because they’re considered ordinary gamers. People’s people. Inherently more trustworthy.”

For me, as someone born after 1985, the trust I place in YouTubers is my generation’s version of the trust that older readers place in the traditional media. Among both audiences, there are plenty of people who don’t know what native advertising is, and aren’t equipped to recognise it.

And how could viewers know that the Shadow of Mordor video reviews were branded content? Under the terms of the contract, the disclosure was buried deep in the video’s description, so viewers wouldn’t know about it unless they went looking.  These tactics are, for me and many others, unacceptable.

On the slopes of B2B

Native advertising can be so hard to spot that even experienced marketers have trouble distinguishing it from real, unbiased editorial. Doug Kessler describes how, when he was looking for an authoritative explanation of native advertising, Google led him to an article about it on The Guardian’s website. The article was so similar to the Guardian’s editorial pages that Doug initially failed to notice he was actually reading paid-for content: native advertising about native advertising.

Now imagine a B2B buyer who is researching a purchase. They think they’re reading unbiased information from a trustworthy source. How do they feel as they gradually realise this ‘unbiased information’ was written and paid for by a vendor – but that vendor’s involvement is not explicitly disclosed?

My guess: they feel tricked, resentful, and like they’ve had their time wasted. Research from Contently appears to back this up. A survey of 542 US internet users from earlier this year found that:

Two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand.

The kind of deception offered by native advertising content isn’t going to play well for brands in the long run, because, as we’re seeing, potential customers won’t appreciate being hoodwinked.

Doug pointed out in his later article on this issue that:

“If you’re a marketer: exploit the hell out of native advertising before the publishers figure out what they’re doing (or the readers start rebelling).”

I believe the rebellion has already begun. Jim Sterling’s video is evidence of this, as is the wider reaction of the gaming community to the videos in question. Videos like the one by John Oliver show that people are beginning to cotton on to the innate deceitfulness of native advertising.

Native advertising is bad for brands, bad for publishers and bad for customer trust

During the closing keynote of this year’s Content Marketing World, award-winning actor Kevin Spacey explained that one of the most important aspects of marketing is authenticity. Marketers should not skimp on being authentic:

“Stay true to your brand. And true to your voice and audiences will respond to that authenticity with enthusiasm and passion.”

Perhaps the greatest irony in the case of Shadow of Mordor is that audiences and reviewers did actually enjoy the game. The PlayStation 4 and PC versions average 8/10 when reviews from critics and audiences are compared, without YouTubers even taken into consideration.

If the game’s publishers had just stayed true to themselves, then perhaps it would have saved itself from the embarrassment of being called out on its marketing practices.

And if The Guardian hadn’t published that piece of native advertising on native advertising? Perhaps we wouldn’t have one of content marketing’s leading thinkers speaking out against the practice.

Further Resources

Native advertising: trust for sale

Native advertising’s apologists miss the point

Shadiness of Mordor

Kevin Spacey closing keynote highlights – Content Marketing World 2014

The power of YouTubers: how Sainsbury’s, Radio 1 and Jamie Oliver are getting in on the act

The NY Times runs its first print native ad

Why native advertising won’t survive, regardless of FTC involvement

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