For those not working in the marketing or advertising industry, native advertising is a tricky, morally ambiguous if not outright ethically dubious proposition. The practice, in which "online advertising ... matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears," blurs if not outright obliterates the line between advertising and editorial. This is a line that the news industry has always liked to claim is sacrosanct, allowing them to claim the credibility to do their jobs.
But native advertising also asks another, deeper question: What about when it's good? What does it mean when native advertising leads to good, innovative journalism?
Such is the question brought up by Netflix's native advertising efforts. As explained by Nat Ives in his recent article in Advertising Age, "Netflix Taps Wall Street Journal to Hype 'Narcos' With Latest Native-Ad Showpiece," the streaming video giant tapped the Wall Street Journal's branded-content division to put together a piece promoting their new series Narcos.
And here's the thing: It's a good piece. A really good piece.
As Ives notes, the piece "uses reporting, video interviews with DEA agents, graphics, photos and an interactive map to tell the story of cocaine as a business." Seriously, you should check the whole thing out. Titled "Concainenomics," it uses all the new-media, Web 2.0 techniques like a long, scrolling format that reveals more as you descend down the page, glitzy interactivity, and a title screen with letters made up of cocaine dust that you can poke at and form into snorting lines with your mouse's pointer.
And the content itself is a smooth integration of the promoted material into the actual content, with pictures comparing the actors playing drug runners like Pablo Escobar to the actual historical figures.
The piece reminds me of the New York Times's "A Game of Shark and Minnow" from two years ago, that explored an ocean territory conflict between China and the Philippines using field recordings, dynamics maps, and video to explore the unique international dispute.
The key for the Narcos piece is that it doesn't hide its roots as advertisement. The show, and how real history informed its development, is mentioned throughout the piece. As above, actors and who they are play are discussed. It's not trying to trick a reader, and can be taken for what it is.
Netflix has made a habit out of native advertising, and it seems to be getting better at it. It previously tapped Wired to create a piece on the rise of streaming video, and the Atlantic for a piece about presidents and their wives promoting House of Cards. Both of these were relatively lame; a bit blatant in their promotional attitudes and thin on interesting content.
Netflix was better, if more sneaky, with a New York Times piece "Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn't Work" that examined the dire state of women's prisons while promoting Orange is the New Black, but without making it very clear that it was sponsored content, aside from a note at the top of the webpage and a few mentions of the show in the text.
The Narcos native advertising seems to be the best one Netflix has managed to solicit, blending promotion with actual interesting information and context without seeming to play a trick on readers. It's the best way to do content marketing, and if Netflix can continue to pull it off, they will be able to shed much of the ambiguity that makes native advertising so distasteful.