Will the Guardian going native solve ethical issues for publishers?

The Guardian launched its branded content division this week with much fanfare and a wide-ranging tie-up with Unilever. But the publisher’s decision to have journalists co-creating sponsored content raises just as many as ethical issues as it does opportunities to show the controversial format is growing up.

Seb Joseph

The media owner’s Guardian Labs – a “content and innovation” agency – was formed last year but has now officially launched following its seven-figure deal with the Lynx and Marmite owner. It begins in earnest next month when some 133 Guardian writers, video producers and strategists will work with Unilever’s marketers to produce native advertising centred on sustainable living.

Content under the deal will be hosted on the Guardian’s Life & Style section online as well as pushed through Unilever’s Project Sunlight marketing platform.

Readers will be encouraged to make their own comments and contribute their own content to campaigns – something the industry has been reluctant to do in the past because it means relinquishing control and could backfire. Additionally, the production unit is built around the publisher’s ethos of “Open Journalism” and what it claims is a more collaborative approach to developing branded content.

While it’s an admirable step at providing a degree of transparency, it is still branded content masquerading as editorial and consequently could confuse people.

The best-practice guidelines the Guardian has no doubt put in place will need to be constantly developing in a way those for newspapers and infomercials on TV have not had to do so in the past.

Regulators are well on their way to laying the groundwork for digital native advertising following the industry’s stuttering attempts to self-regulate the ad format. US title the Atlantic created a series of guidelines after it was slammed for moderating comments around branded content, while the Times started to label all native ads it hosts last month.  

Publishers, while quick to warm to native advertising, have generally kept their editorial teams clear of content generation for fear of undermining public confidence in journalist independence. It’s a reflection of growing concerns about the confusion between advertising and journalism that has left marketers and publishers worried about poorly executed ads leading to distrust from readers.

The challenge right now for publishers and advertisers is to define native advertising, which can range from pure entertainment to CSR promotions. And while neither the Guardian Labs nor Unilever appear to have solved that issue, both assure that readers will know they are looking at a message from an advertiser. Content will be clearly labelled as evidenced by the Guardian’s tie-up with EE from last year.

Rather than racing to create new native ad formats, the industry needs to focus on creating more transparent examples of how media owners and brands can work together to ensure native advertising evolves in a positive way. Hopefully, Guardian Labs will populate the market with case studies that do just that. 

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