Native-Ad Slayer John Oliver Visits Native-Ad Seller Hearst and Explains His Hit Piece

Ads That Resemble Edit Are a 'Trust Parasite' for Publishers

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John Oliver speaking to Cosmo editor Joanna Coles at Hearst Tower.
John Oliver speaking to Cosmo editor Joanna Coles at Hearst Tower.

Why did John Oliver devote 11 minutes of his HBO show "Last Week Tonight" to skewering the practice of native advertising?

It was inspired by an interview he saw with Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp, Mr. Oliver told an audience at Hearst Tower in New York on Tuesday. Mr. Oliver was struck by how easily and quickly Mr. Ripp dismissed the tradition of separating his company's editorial function from the business side.

Time Inc. is the nation's largest magazine publisher, and owner of such iconic titles as Time, People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. Its news magazines strive to adhere to the highest journalistic standards, including total independence from advertisers' influence. Last year, Mr. Ripp told editors to report to business-side colleagues instead of the longtime company editor-in-chief, essentially dissolving the wall that existed between editorial and advertising, while promising to maintain journalistic independence.

"I guarantee that 50% of his staff is fucking furious," Mr. Oliver told Joanna Coles, editor of Hearst's Cosmopolitan magazine, who conducted a Q&A with the comedian and TV host.

Native ads are designed to mimic the surrounding editorial content, all the better to draw readers who religiously avoid marketing messages. They were once the province of digital-only players like BuzzFeed and some open-minded traditional publishers, but now appear on sites including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

Hearst, too, has introduced native ads to the websites of many of its magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Harper's Bazaar. The publishers all insist they are labeling the ads clearly so readers know what they are.

Mr. Oliver acknowledged that native advertising probably works to draw ad dollars in the short term, but called the practice ultimately a "trust parasite" because some readers will feel deceived.

Ms. Coles, whose Cosmopolitan.com flags native ads with labels such as "Cosmopolitan + Revlon" and "Cosmopolitan + Panera Bread," said it was "fantastic description."

The rise of native advertising, Mr. Oliver added, is indicative of the "bleak media state." Readers need to understand that someone has to pay for journalism, he said.

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