Full Disclosure: Expecting More From Publishers

September 15, 2014

On The Media hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are right about most things. Most.

Former Pony and current Star Tribune reporter John Reinan once told me I take journalism ethics more seriously than most of the actual journalists he knows. I wasn’t sure whether to take his remark as a compliment or a lamentation, but I’m sad if it’s true. Want to get me riled up? Bring up topics like unnamed sources, the A-block on most local television broadcasts or the listicles epidemic.

We all have our passions, right?

As a recreational media ombudsman, I never miss an episode of On The Media, the weekly one-hour radio show dedicated to the ever-evolving media landscape. It’s a bit meta. Rather than focusing on the news, the OTM focused on trends and how recent news was gathered and reported. It’s compelling radio even for the layperson, but especially for a PR professional. Some believe PR is the nemesis of journalism. I believe the two trades — when at their best — co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

OTM co-host Bob Garfield, a brilliant media critic if not an ink-stained curmudgeon, has consistently voiced disdain for native advertising. Garfield seems to believe native advertising attempts to be willfully deceptive to the public and compromises the integrity of an outlet by misrepresenting (or under-representing) advertising as editorial. Never the twain shall meet, he argues.

I found myself growing defensive when Garfield and a recent guest, David J. Franklyn, discussed the reticence of publishers and brands to have the FTC strictly regulate native advertising. Here was the key exchange:

FRANKLYN: “I was at an FTC conference last December where the FTC realized this was a problem and gathered together a lot of people. Most of the people weren’t academics like myself. They were people from industries who were engaged in native advertising. They took the stage one after the other and proceeded to explain to the FTC regulators who were sitting in the audience how it was in their self-interest and their company’s interest and their clients’ interest to make sure all of this was very transparent and very disclosed because if they didn’t do a good job at that they would ultimately – their clients, the brands — would lose the trust of consumers. And I thought to myself: you’ve got to be kidding I can’t believe they’re sitting there and expecting us to believe this.”

GARFIELD: Now David, I have to say, I was at the same conference. I was presenting at that conference and I was saying aloud what you were thinking which is that these people are lying. Because, while everyone got up there testifying that it was in their best interest to disclose, disclose, disclose, in practice they were all going through all sorts of gymnastics not to disclose. Including these extremely fuzzy terms like ‘sponsored host.’ It’s not hard to disclose advertising. You know what word works very well? Advertising. Nobody is using that term at all. But the FTC was paying attention. What are they going to do?”

(You can listen to the full segment here.)

The appeal of native advertising is controlling a story that will appear in front of a highly targeted audience within the pages — digital or print — of a trusted publication. I have brokered a dozen or so native advertising campaigns in my time at Fast Horse, and never once have I or a client said, “Can we make sure our story looks as much like a real story as possible?” To the contrary, my clients have been hyper-vigilant about disclosing the paid nature of their campaigns and respecting the ethics and principles of media outlets.

It would seem the responsibility to clearly disclose native advertising lies with publications, not brands. However, Garfield, Franklyn and the sort would rather castigate marketers than accept that publications and advertisers can play nicely in the sandbox. Personally, I would rather read thoughtful, well-written native advertising than see another dopey page full of clumsy copy and Photoshop vomit.

I’m all for disclosure, but native advertising doesn’t need the FTC involved. The responsibility should lie with those who put the ink on the pages, not the ink on the check.