Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

“Sponsor Content” Doesn’t Fool Anyone Except Advertisers

I don’t get advertorials.

I get “native ads.” Those are ads that give Web publishers a chance to say they’re not selling ads, because they’re selling stuff that people want to look at, at least theoretically. I think that can work in some formats — especially with video.

But these things never seem to work when it comes to print, or print-like Web publications. Not because they fool readers into thinking they’re reading “real” content. But because they seem like lousy imitations of “real” content.

I can’t figure out why that is. Making “real” content, that readers would find inherently interesting, is a specific skill, but not a rarefied one. For whatever reason, though, these things just don’t work as ads, or as anything else.

That held true for magazines and newspapers in the olden days, and it holds true now. For instance: Check out the “sponsor content” that the Atlantic is still running, after apologizing for its Scientology blunder — this stuff from IBM is unreadable. Ditto for Huffpo’s work for Prilosec (I think? The URL seems to be the only hint on this one).

Even the sharp minds at BuzzFeed, blessed with a spooky ability to make click-worthy stuff, end up falling flat when asked to create fake content for clients like the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

Still, I’m all for ad revenue, because it helps foot the bill for typers like me. And we’re still in frontier times when it comes to Web ad rules, so we’re going to see lots of experiments for a long time.

So here’s one easy ground rule for Web publishers and advertisers to keep in mind as they draft their next advertorial campaign: If the fake article you’re going to write can be easily, mercilessly parodied with a couple keystrokes and some nifty Photoshop work, try something else.



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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald