Over the past year you will have seen a steady increase of so-called “native ads” while reading articles online. You know, those half dozen or more links with pictures to what at first looks like other articles recommended by the publisher. Only, they are really outside links. Many are click-bait ads, with pictures and headlines designed to grab your attention. They are introduced with tags like “From the web” or “Promoted stories”. The small print will mention companies like Outbrain, Taboola or Revcontent that place the ads in the space that they rent from the website owner.
At best, the advertised content doesn’t live up to the attention-grabbing ads. At worst, the advertisers try to sell you something utterly worthless through deception and lies, including miracle weight loss, anti-aging and anti-Alzheimer pills or promises of jobs that make thousands of dollars a month with no special skills required. Many of these offerings involve recurring credit card charges that are very difficult to get out of.
So why have reputable publishers like the Washington Post, Newsweek and The Atlantic embraced “native ads” on their websites? The answer of course is money. As the Internet grew, print advertising revenues have been collapsing for traditional media as much of the ads have moved online. What’s worse, with Google Adsense and Facebook ads, traditional publishers now have to compete for eyeballs against an almost unlimited number of websites and SNS, making it very hard to replace print ad revenue with online ad revenue. Companies like Outbrain and Taboola (both based in Israel) and RevContent (based in Florida) are offering better rates to site owners, but they can only do that because they seem to have few ethical problems selling anything that makes money.
Back in the 1990s I used to read High Times, which always carried pages of “fake pot” ads. The description for these products might lead naive readers to think that these legal products offered some of the effects of illegal marijuana, but it was really just bullshit and the High Times editors knew that. Their dilemma was that Congress had passed anti-paraphernalia laws that discouraged their traditional advertisers (e.g. for glass pipes) from advertising and the “fake pot” scammers were ready to fill the gap. When rival magazine Cannabis Culture pointed out the hypocrisy of High Times helping to defraud their readers, one of the editors offered an excuse along these lines: “If you don’t like these ads, why don’t you buy that advertising space yourself?” It’s not quite as simple as that.
While every business needs revenue to survive, I think ultimately, accepting money from unethical sources such as scammers does undermine your credibility. Gradually, more and more consumers will realize these “promoted stories” and “sponsored content” are nothing but deceptive junk. Taking money from these advertisers is a devil’s bargain that will damage the reputation of sites running unethical ads. If readers of reputable news sites lose faith in them, what will they have left that distinguishes them from fake news sites?