BuzzFeed enters potentially lucrative, ethically tricky world of native political ads.

October 12, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

Citing a “huge demand for political and advocacy groups to tap into” its core audience of millennials, BuzzFeed will introduce video political ads amid growing interest in the 2016 presidential campaign.

It hired Rena Shapiro, who previously was an ad executive at Pandora, to be vice president of politics and advocacy and to shepherd the new venture.

The ads will apparently feature candidates and policy advocates “producing BuzzFeed-style videos.” They will be marked as ads and not as content produced by the site.

“BuzzFeed is the top place millennials and influentials are reading and sharing news, and with the smart and thoughtful reporting from BuzzFeed Politics, there is a huge demand for political and advocacy groups to tap into that audience. From our shareable videos to our social posts, there’s a massive opportunity and I can’t wait to get started,” Shapiro said in a statement.

As Politico notes, “It’s not the first time BuzzFeed has ventured into native ads for politicians. In 2012, the site hosted several native advertisements for candidates, which consisted of BuzzFeed style articles. This will take things a step further and more akin to BuzzFeed’s successful Friskies cat food native ads.”

Native advertising is essentially a newer version of print advertorials. Publications differ in how they designate the content—Huffington Post says “presented by,” Slate says “sponsored content” and The New York Times refers to “paid posts.”

But it’s also pretty clear that consumers increasingly do not differentiate. Surveys suggests that many may not realize that they are looking at an ad as they peruse the content. But given frequent skepticism over use the word “advertisement,” many media outlets thus tend to softer terminology such as “presented by.”

“To the extent that native ads are recognizable as such, they are worthless,” said Steve Brill, the journalist and media entrepreneur, in an email. “To the extent that they fool readers, they are unethical. Either way, a losing proposition. “

Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, which includes NBC News and MSNBC, recently announced it is investing $200 million in BuzzFeed.

Mike Fourcher, a Chicago-based digital news entrepreneur, offered his theory that, like the retail business 15 years ago or so, news is entering what he calls a barbell economy: At one end, there are many people who consume “free/cheap, mass-market content from a limited number of outlets (e.g. People Mag, Buzzfeed, ESPN). This content is ‘dumbed down’ because it’s for a larger audience that discriminates less, largely interested in getting their news hit,” Fourcher said in an email Monday.

At the other end, he argues, is a huge, “‘Long Tail’ collection of specialized outlets on every imaginable subject, that charges consumers money, usually for subscriptions, but is higher quality,” including lots of specialty publications like NK News, Energy Daily and his own new venture, Aldertrack, which focuses on Chicago’s 50 City Council members. Those consumers, he contends, are more discriminating and will pay for content if it is very high quality.

In the middle of the barbell, he says, are outlets that serve limited audiences for advertising, mainly daily metros. “Those audiences are being pulled to either end of the barbell, decimating the middle.”

As for BuzzFeed, he argues that it is “serving the end of the barbell that often does not want to discriminate between news and ads. These consumers are more looking to get an information fix rather than become informed. Stimulate me!”

As for the paid content, Alan Mutter, a newspaper industry analyst in San Francisco, said by email, “In my humble opinion, people cannot differentiate between editorial content and native advertising – especially when the advertising is given some sort of designation that does not use the word ‘advertising.'”

“Newspapers employed advertorials forever but they at least labeled them as advertisements. Today, you can’t know what you are looking at.”

As an example, he offers up for inspection a website that might strike on as resembling a local news site but it is actually sponsored and written by Chevron in Richmond, California.