Should we really fear native advertising? Really?

We're not all dummies that need protectionThe principal reason that innovation in the media space is so problematic today is that we’re in the midst of a cultural change at the same time. It appears that technology is causing the changes, but the reality is that these are due to people using technology, not technology itself. If it was simply technology, whole industries wouldn’t be influenced as they are, because we could adapt to those new technologies. This is the false assumption that drives the status quo in the West.

The brilliant Farhad Manjoo, for example — a technology columnist for the Wall St. Journal and one of the most astute observers of the technology world — got it wrong recently in a piece about native advertising, because he didn’t or couldn’t connect the dots to the cultural shift. He makes a strong argument that native advertising is inherently evil, because eventually, web surfers (a.k.a. “users” a.k.a. “people”) won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s content and what’s advertising.

When ads appear as part of content (as in product placement), they sneak past our defenses; they don’t look like ads, so we aren’t as skeptical of them.

The online-ad marketplace is ferociously competitive, and given the wild scramble for ad dollars among Google, Facebook, and Twitter, not to mention smaller media sites, advertisers are in a position to keep asking sites for more. If they begin to notice that ads marked “sponsored” aren’t doing as well as they used to, they’ll demand fainter disclosure, and they’ll get it.

Note that Twitter calls its ads “promoted” messages, which is hardly clear. BuzzFeed calls advertisers “featured partners,” which sounds more like an award than a paid relationship.

I can’t solve this problem. I think native ads are sure to get blurrier about their provenance. It’s too late to stop that now. But I sure hope advertisers, publishers and ad networks will be extra careful about how these ads are implemented.

This reasoning sounds familiar, and, well, reasonable. It’s logical. It makes sense. But hidden within its thinking is a leftover remnant from an archaic cultural bias — that “the masses” are incapable of self care, including the ability to avoid hucksters and con artists without help from those with superior minds and positions. This view is straight out of the dominant social construct of the industrial age and before, colonialism (I reference it as “modernism” in my work). Wikipedia defines it thusly:

Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between the colonists and the indigenous population.

Colonialism is a hierarchical culture wherein the haves justify their position via the false claim that the have-nots actually need them, and this is what’s absolutely gutted by the horizontal activity of the network and the immediate access to knowledge via a touch. So Manjoo sees danger, because the poor masses are too ignorant not to be taken in, and therefore, require a system — naturally run by the elites — to protect them. The whole idea of objectivity, where journalists swear some internally-governed oath to “be” unbiased in their reporting, is, in fact, a farce, created by the social engineering geniuses of the Creel Committee to provide a sterile environment in which to sell advertising, including their own views of society.

This is a central theme of two of my books, Reinventing Local Media, Ideas for Thriving in a Postmodern World volumes I & II. I just slipped in a native ad, right? Who cares?

And don’t you think we all know or suspect the truth about which I wrote earlier this year, that We’re All Shilling For Something? When the camera zooms in on the Chevrolet logo on the grill of Hawaii 5–0’s hot Camero, do you honestly believe that it isn’t seen for exactly what it is? Again, who cares (except that it makes for crappy TV)? And in the same show, when scenic shots reveal Diamond Head in all its glory, is that not to compensate Hawaii for the state’s help in filming the program? Who cares? When Buzzfeed mixes a “featured partner” in with its list content, why does Farhad Manjoo care? Nobody cares, and where’s the evidence that caring matters one whit anyway? Again, arguments suggesting that this is a serious problem don’t hold water, if advancing the horizontal culture is the aim.

We could go on and on, and the question “who cares?” would remain. It’s time we began giving credit to the masses for lessons learned and lessons passed along. The gossip magazines at the grocery store checkout tease us and titillate us. Do they honestly believe we don’t know it? The underestimation of everyday people is the greatest sin of contemporary hierarchies, and it will not be tolerated for long.

The reason this is so important for all of us is that this colonialist cultural view will never produce new forms of value, which can then be exploited for the bottom lines of media and beyond. It has its established values (cash) and must, by its nature, reject attempts to alter its basic tenets. Doc Searls’ Project VRM is not of the status quo, and therefore its core competency and value propositions are completely different. It turns advertising upside-down by bringing ad messages from consumers into an arena within which there is bidding for commerce. This fits the post-colonial culture, because its energy is disbursed sideways, not top-down.

The 21st Century will be known as the century when major laws and rulings will more clearly define the disruptive nature of knowledge and information in the hands of the masses. Right now, we’re just guessing, but I’ll take even a guess over insistence that everything’s fine.

We must not and cannot look at 21st Century doings through 20th Century eyes. The world has changed and everything in it. And it’s only just begun.

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