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How 'native' is native advertising?

Published:Tuesday | August 12, 2014 | 8:00 AM

By Gordon Robinson

I've tried to establish how critical media transparency is to us.

But we don't get it. Newspapers worldwide, including The Gleaner, have adjusted for modern reality by moving their publications online. This allows them to attract a younger demographic and deliver more fast-paced and relevant reporting. But we, who need media to modernise and protect us from opaque government more than colonic irrigation, refuse to pay for online newspapers. In acts of masochism not seen since Sammy was appointed Test captain, citizens use every conceivable trick to read online newspapers free.

Since we won't help media help us, newspapers have resorted to what's euphemistically called 'native advertising'. Native advertising is advertorials presented to readers disguised as news reported by newspaper staff. This is the clearest and most imminent danger to citizens, especially in a developing nation like Jamaica where neglect of educational needs has produced an adult readership that can be easily fooled.

Still, we hide our heads in the sand and, desperately seeking Anancy, we've steadily pushed online media towards behaviour more associated with politics, which is to say, away from democracy towards hypocrisy. 'Native advertising' is the new marketing toy allowing advertisers to write copy that is published in the form of news reports. Even traditional, respected newspapers like The New York Times (NYT) are getting involved, claiming that once 'native advertising' is clearly labelled, it's OK.

BUT there's labelling and then there's labelling. The following appeared in a recent NYT online edition headlined, 'How Our Energy Needs Are Changing, In A Series Of Interactive Charts'

"More so than ever before, the United States is powered by a diverse mix of energy sources. The interactive diagrams that follow explore the past, present and future of this complex system. The first maps out the composition of our primary sources of energy (from crude oil to solar power) and their different uses. The second visualisation explains how those energy sources have diversified since the 1700s. The final diagram shifts to a global view, to show how, despite growing domestic energy production, rising demand overseas is intensifying competition for all types of energy."

The 'interactive diagrams' (interactivity limited to reader clicking to open information windows) seek to establish the need for 'conventional energy solutions' in perpetuity. Nowhere is the contribution of 'conventional energy solutions' to the world's environmental crisis recognised.

If readers bother to look above the banner headline and below the equally eye-catching New York Times logo, they'll see a shaded line obscuring 'paid post' in tiny letters. Between the quoted intro and the diagrams is the byline 'Written and Produced by TbrandStudio'. Who dat? A staff reporter? Freelance journalist?

FINE PRINT

Well, if, after reading reams hammering crude oil dependence as an eternal certainty, readers scroll to the bottom of the page, they'll find the following, in very small print: "This page was produced by the TBrand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of The New York Times, in collaboration with Chevron. The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in its preparation."

Like Michael Jordan, unbelievaBULL. This massive production, all under the NYT logo, looking exactly like a news report, is an advert for Chevron, one of the world's biggest crude oil refiners?

Online Gleaner's August 4 home page includes a video: 'ON THE RECORD: Solving Crime Pays'. The link leads the unsuspecting reader to a five-minute advertorial for Crime Stop hosted by Crime Stop GM, Prudence Gentles. An 'other videos' link leads to a multimedia page under the Gleaner logo, with no disclaimer. Among the videos available is an interview show lookalike titled 'Corporate Coffee Mornings', hosted by Gleaner Public Affairs Editor Barbara Ellington, that turns out to be a bald, five-minute advertorial for Jamaica National Foundation. This on the same page with genuine news videos about JFJ, Commonwealth Games, and drought. How does the average reader distinguish 'news' from 'native advertising'?

Readers may be powerless, short of revolution, to directly attack our abominable system of government but can assist media to do so. Stop evading the cost to read The Gleaner online. Support Jamaican media. Advertise on all media. Without your support, press freedom will soon be just another ideal to which we pay lip service. Instead, we'll have press slavery, with slaves sold at auction to the highest bidder. My friend Joseph's cryptic comment is worth repeating: "Such is the vile world we now inhabit. Everything has its price, and that price is falling every day."

Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.