In the world of advertising, if you're not first, you're last. In the dog eat dog world, both advertisers and media have been forced out of their traditional ways to find a new approach to pay for their content as well as promote their product. Thus, branded content and native advertising were born.
The partnership formed between advertisers and the media to create native ads and branded content has added entirely new ethical dilemmas to the industry. Although it seems like a win-win for both parties involved, what about the readers?
The problem lies in trying to pass off branded/native content as real content. If we want to gain and keep our readers trust, then we must be transparent about our content. DO NOT, under any circumstances, try to pass off paid content as editorial content. In the long run, this will only hurt your readership. Readers will feel deceived, trust will be broken, and people will be less inclined to believe that you're content is sincere.
Is it Ethical to Use Branded/Native Advertising?
Yes, I believe that if you follow a set of ethical guidelines then branded/native advertising can be used ethically. First and foremost, I think that it is essential to educate readers on what native advertising really is. If they are informed that it exists and for what purpose it exists, then they will be better equipped to identify it. However, I don't think that it should be difficult to pick out. If the content is paid for, then it should clearly state that it is an advertisement or that it is sponsored. According to Forbes, "Nearly two out of five publishers using native advertising are not compliant with Federal Trade Commission guidelines for identifying such content" (Fletcher, 2017). With such a high rate of non-compliant advertisers, it makes it harder for anyone to trust this sort of advertising.
According to FTC guidelines, "Disclosures that are necessary to avoid misleading consumers must be presented clearly and prominently" (FTC, 2015). The FTC uses 3 categories to help advertisers ensure that the disclosure is clear. These categories are proximity and placement, prominence, and clarity of meaning. However, you're probably wondering what ads qualify as a necessary disclosure. The FTC says, "The more a native ad is similar in format and topic to content on the publishers site the more likely that a disclosure will be necessary to prevent deception" (FTC, 2015). Although this may seem ambiguous, it is always better to be safe than sorry. If there is ANY reason at all that your reader could confuse your native content as editorial content, then be sure to use a disclosure.
In conclusion, branded/native advertising is not completely bad or completely good. Depending on the context, it can be either. The ethical dilemma with paid content is not whether or not you use it, but rather the way in which you use it. If you are being open and honest with your readers, then this type of content can be beneficial to all parties involved.