What South Park Can Teach Us About Transparency in Advertising

As we’ve discussed so often, content is king when it comes to modern online advertising. One of the best ways to drive traffic to your site is to provide fresh, relevant content that is interesting and desirable to your target market. This isn’t advertising, because you’re not directly promoting your product or service. The goal is to entice audiences to visit your site and keep coming back because you provide a useful service. Hopefully they’ll look around your site a bit and start to develop a strong impression of your brand, whether it’s because they see you as an expert or because they feel that you represent the same values they do.

But there’s a line between content and advertising that is often crossed, and when that line is crossed, we end up with what is commonly referred to as native advertising. The American Press Institute provides the following explanation of sponsored content/native advertising:

“It is better to define sponsored content by what it does than by what it looks like:

  • It is generally understood to be content that takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content.
  • It usually serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand.

Fortune notes that while this practice is becoming increasingly popular with digital publishers, consumers aren’t fans at all. According to a survey by the content development company Contently, two-thirds of survey respondents said they felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand.

Recently, South Park got in on the fun in a late 2015 episode titled “Sponsored Content.” Tech Times provides a succinct synopsis of the episode for those who haven’t seen it, and Maria Shinkevich writing for Ad Age offers an analysis of the broader point the show is trying to make: “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.”

As the lines between content and advertising become increasingly blurred, businesses need to be aware of how consumers perceive native advertising. It’s not just the creators of South Park who take offense. As the Contently survey notes, a big chunk of consumers feel the same way, and in putting out its own guidelines on the subject, the Federal Trade Commission has made it clear that it takes the potential for deceptive advertising with this type of content very seriously too.

The bottom line. Treat your consumers respectfully. Not only is it the right thing to do but, if you don’t, your brand is certain to suffer.

Recommended Reading:

The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement

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