'South Park' Lampoon of Native Advertising Highlights Important Issues

The Ad Industry Needs to Raise the Bar on Native Advertising

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"South Park"'s most recent season taught us something important: Ads are here to stay, and what's more, they are the enemy of free-thinking consumers who are waging war with covert brand messages. If you have not seen season 19, I can sum it up by saying ads have become sentient creatures, running a conspiracy to control the world, hilariously exploring what marketing has become.

Like anything "South Park" lampoons, its take on ads -- and native ads in particular -- is a satire on a much bigger theme: Content has become commerce. We have reached a perfect storm; the democratization of news providers and publishers, the record increase of ad avoidance, and the insatiable appetite for targeted content ads are working. People are clicking on native ads. Publishers are getting traffic. Companies are getting messages to their audiences.

Native advertising has become one of the most successful and profitable mediums available on the internet. Click-through rates and conversion rates through affiliate marketing surpass almost every other form of online promotion. There are several reasons for this. The machines behind native advertising are good at understanding how relevant the content is for particular visitors. By their very nature, native ads feature interesting content that audiences want to consume. Native ads are not disruptive and enhance the user experience. These factors enable brands to connect the right people with the right content.

Everyone's happy -- content publishers get relevant traffic, audiences get relevant content and brands get relevant audiences.

So what's the problem?

Well, as "South Park" deliciously spotlights, audiences may not know that the content they are dealing with is an ad. The industry has worked quite hard to sharpen disclosure and create standards for content delineation, but at some level, many still feel like they are being tricked. The reason is that online advertising (especially native advertising) is highly dynamic and flexible, which attracts those willing to abuse it.

Native networks are suffering from the attacks of unscrupulous advertisers who utilize unruly ad tactics, such as changing the landing page content after the ad has been moderated, or substituting the content on the landing page dynamically with irrelevant content that is more commercially beneficial for them.

Second, audiences may not trust what the content is trying to communicate. Is it clickbait to something irrelevant? Is it spam? Is it malware? "South Park"'s not-so-subtle metaphor played out a plot where ads were pretending to be real people. There is a public disdain for camouflaged ads, even though the reality of the marketplace is quite positive. People don't like to be tricked. Hard-to-see disclosure statements, clickbait and bait-and-switch tactics obviously don't fly well ultimately.

For native advertising to better serve its desired function, it must first be about interesting and relevant content. It is not enough to simply "play by the rules." Content must be created for the purity of the content's sake. It must be genuinely important to audiences and have every bit of credibility, authenticity and usefulness as organic content. The end goal cannot be to sell or promote. The end goal must be to resource, inform and entertain.

That's what makes native advertising so effective -- it is solely about content. Sure, the traffic generated can lead to something transactional, but the ad itself should not be a promotion disguised as content. To sell and promote are separate issues that can also be done with native advertising, but have to be done transparently.

Finally, audiences are not entirely friendly about advertising in general and don't like to be the subject of targeted promotion. And here comes ad blocking. Originally a helpful tool to help users avoid invasive advertising, ad-blocking software companies have simply replaced ads with ones they select (because the ad networks pay them), rather than ones that are relevant to users.

The situation threatens the whole concept of "free" content on the internet that consumers have gotten used to as publishers who create the content get paid through the ads. The internet ecosystem should come to a solution beneficial to all its players -- giving the publishers the chance to provide content for free, visitors to get relevant and ethical ads that they will choose to consume, and brands to still have their legitimate way of reaching consumers through relevant ads.

The industry has come together on disclosure. That's great. But, let's raise the bar a little higher. If we are were all focused on content as a baseline for success, then maybe we could earn some trust from consumers and move advertising from a "Comedy Central" punchline to something useful to both brands and audiences.