Columns & Commentary

This Isn’t What You Think It Is


Every year, innocent words get added and removed from the dictionary – either from overuse or just because the term has fallen from people’s lips and away from modern society. Last year, TIME magazine celebrated its fourth annual word banishment poll, where readers can vote “another word off of the island.” Some words from last year include basic, kale, and literally. The article also includes definitions of each word and why it should be banned; while the words aren’t banned from the dictionary, the article points out how each year, certain words become overused and abused.

sam1But where you might think this is a column concerning exiled, overused words, you’ll soon realize that it’s not. Instead, this is an article concerning native advertising. Confusing, right? Well, native advertising is just as confusing, if not more so – and the worst part is that it’s everywhere.

Not many people know what it is, yet many encounter it every day. Even Googling the definition can have several scratching their heads. Sharethrough defines native advertising as “a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.” In other words, media companies are beginning to merge advertisements into the article that they’re publishing, which can be misleading, just like the beginning of this article was.

This is commonly seen in articles from websites sponsored by an advertiser. A perfect example is this article on BuzzFeed’s website. While it might only look like a cute article about the challenges of being a holiday cook, its real purpose is to sponsor IHOP. Essentially, the article was made because IHOP paid for it. Another example could be this very column. You may have thought that this was going to be about censorship, or more specifically banning words, but that is entirely not the case.

Most people aren’t bothered by native advertising, perhaps because it often goes unnoticed and seems to blend in with the article itself – that’s the “native” part. However, Charles Duhigg of the New York Times made waves in 2012 when he published this article revealing how companies really get to know their consumers. He started with Target. As it turns out Target assigns each customer a guest ID number which keeps tabs on everything that the shopper buys. For instance, they can tell whether you like Captain Crunch or Fruit Loops better based on your purchases. Additionally, the unique number is linked to demographics – from age to how many credit cards reside in the shopper’s wallet.

While it’s not uncommon for companies to examine consumer’s buying habits, some feel that advertisers go too far. Duhigg also mentioned in the same article a man who walked into a Target store in Minnesota demanding to speak to a manager over coupons for baby cribs and clothes. The coupons were addressed specifically to his daughter, and the man was infuriated that Target would perpetuate and encourage teen pregnancy. To his own surprise, the man later returned to the store to apologize as it turned out that his daughter was pregnant after all.

The most disturbing part of this story is that Target, a third party corporate “person” knew that this man’s daughter was pregnant before he did, and they most likely retrieved the information from the daughter’s guest ID. If this were a random stranger who knew all of this information about her, then this would most likely be classified as stalking — yet companies do it every single day.

Native advertising only creates confusion as it blurs the lines between the news and the commercials; what appears to be a news article is really only an advertisement. It’s similar to fogging the air between church and state – two things that should have a clear, defining line. While I understand that native advertising is another way for news media to support their business via Internet, I don’t understand why it’s okay to ‘create news’ just to satisfy a sponsor.

Creating news in order to appease a company isn’t what journalism is about – it’s about reporting real stories about real people, accurately and responsibly. It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless and keeping the public informed. When you throw annoying advertisements in the mix, then it suddenly forces the reader to question the information provided; is what I’m reading true, or is it just propaganda in the form of news? How do we know that the information provided is unbiased if it’s being sponsored by a company?

Like the incident with Target, native advertising is another instance of advertising gone too far; only, instead of invading the personal lives of the public it’s obscuring the truth and creating bias where it’s not wanted. There are other ways to have advertisements online – putting it into the news shouldn’t be one of them. Maybe instead of banishing something as simple as the word kale, we ban something more complex like native advertising. Then we can keep advertisements out of the news and I’ll know whether or not breakfast is really important or if it’s just another ad from IHOP.

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