Category Archives: Advertising Ethics

Going native.

“Native advertising”—what we used to call advertorials in the world of dead-tree media—are having a moment, and part of me hopes it doesn’t last much longer than that.

It’s somewhat impolitic of me to say that in a public (if lightly trafficked) forum, since my agency, like most others, is dabbling in the medium for some of our clients.

The premise is simple enough: disguise the fact that your ad is an ad, make it mimic the editorial format it’s placed in, and readers will lower their guard and be more receptive to your message. People consume media for its content, right? Ads are something to be endured, ignored or skipped. Make your ad look like editorial content and people will engage.

Well, maybe.

Since this blog exists in a data-free zone, I can’t verify one way or another if this ploy works in digital media. I know, or think I know, it doesn’t work very well in print, even though you see it all the time, especially in lifestyle publications. Usually it’s what is absurdly termed a “value added” media buy: put an ad in our rag,  and we’ll put some pseudo-editorial focusing on your brand nearby.

In practice, what happens is either a) low-level creatives at the agency are assigned the advertorial, which does nothing for their portfolio and which calls for journalistic skills they likely don’t have; or b) the publication assigns its own hacks, who do an equally execrable job. To make it worse, all this ad-plus-editorial crap is usually segregated in its own free-standing section within the mag, making it that much easier to skip the whole thing. Advertisers still do it, because it feels like getting something for nothing, but most people I know just ignore this stuff, and are under no delusions about what it is.

But what about digital?

Well, the nature of the medium is such that, frankly, it’s easier to disguise your paid-media identity. Aggregating sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are very busy visually, and it creates ripe opportunities for subterfuge. Here’s one example, from Buzzfeed:

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Man, you gotta look real hard to realize there’s a wolf among those sheep. That Intel…thing in the lower right looks pretty legit. And I’m guessing it got a lot of clicks. But to what end? No one likes getting played for a sucker, and clicking on what you think is a tech article and winding up looking at some bogus Intel corporate “content”—how does that build brand loyalty?

Nowhere in this screed have I even touched the ethics of all this, because advertising people talking about ethics is like 1-percenters talking about food stamps. But still, let’s be clear: native advertising is, by its nature, disingenuous–the Devil in disguise.

And while ads–real ads– aren’t always as truthful as they could be, they make no attempt to be anything but what they are: an exercise in selling, a tool of commerce. People know an ad when they see it, and whether they pay attention or not has to do with whether they care about what’s being sold and the craft of the message itself. That, ultimately, is something I believe in my bones: that good ads go naked into the world, armed with nothing but words and pictures, and, faced with indifference and scorn, somehow prevail.

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The post-Yom Kippur, financial meltdown, possible End Times Remorse-fest

I am feeling remorseful.

Yom Kippur stirred things up, and then the disappearance of 30% of my life savings whipped it into a froth. Did I, in my own small way, help bring about this calamity by prodding people to buy things they didn’t need or couldn’t afford? And now, will I become more compliant about unreasonable client demands in my newly hobbled financial state? Can I afford to be principled? What does being principled in the ad business mean anyway?

For those of you wondering similar things, or who just like taking stupid self-diagnostic tests, here’s the First Annual Advertising Morality Gut Check Test. For each situation posed, ask yourself what you’d do, then rate your response on this scale:

1. What’s the problem?
2. I’d do it, but I’d have misgivings.

3. Only if you put a gun to my head.
4. I’d quit first.

There are no right answers, but if you keep answering (1) to everything, you obviously have the morals of an iguana. And if you keep answering (4) you’re either a Trustafarian or only 22. For the rest of us, most of the time, things are uncomfortably somewhere in the middle.


First Annual Advertising Morality Gut Check Test

For each situation, rate your answer from 1 thru 4 using this scale:

1. What’s the problem?
2. I’d do it, but I’d have misgivings.
3. Only if you put a gun to my head.
4. I’d quit first.


Using a parity claim like “No other brand gives you more” when you know people often take this as meaning superiority.

Selling a product that’s harmful to the environment, e.g., non-recyclable, containing harmful chemicals, using high amounts of fossil fuel.

Working on a casino or horse-racing account.

Working on a liquor account.

You’ve been asked by the client to get some “younger thinking” on his business than the two early-50s creatives who now work on it.

Working on a tanning-bed account.

Working on a tobacco account, including cigars.

You have the opportunity to pitch a piece of Wal-Mart business. You detest Wal-Mart for its refusal to sell birth control but willingness to sell guns.

Using fear or doubt as a selling tool.

Using sex as a selling tool.

Persuading people to use a brand you believe is inferior to the brand you use at home.

Your client is ready to spend a significant amount of money to launch a new product. The launch effort would represent a nice piece of revenue for your shop. You believe the product has no chance of succeeding.

Persuading people to ask for an expensive brand-name Rx drug when the cheap generic works just as well.

Working on Capitol One or similar accounts that promote easy credit.

A campaign on behalf of the coal industry.

A campaign on behalf of the mortgage-broker’s association.

A campaign about the health benefits of red meat from the National Beef Council.

You’ve been asked to pitch a sugary kid’s cereal. It would be a huge win for your shop. You have an overweight child at risk of developing diabetes.


It wasn’t me! It was the focus group!