“Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except, it’s actually more like raisins into a cookie – because nobody wants them there.”

So said comedian John Oliver on his late night talk show, Last Week Tonight, during a skit where he tackled native advertising. It’s a funny clip, and well worth the watch, but do consumers think the same as Oliver does, or are they a bit more ambivalent towards the format?

According to research from the Internet Advertising Bureau, which surveyed attitudes towards native advertising across 5,000 consumers who visit a combination of business, entertainment, and news websites, 86 percent of consumers feel that online advertising is necessary to receive free content online.

The same research found that 60 percent of consumers are more open to online ads that tell a story than ones that simply sell a product.

On the face of it those are two impressive stats – only 14 percent of consumers appear to feel that online advertising isn’t necessary to support free online content, and the majority of consumers like ads that tell stories – two lines of rhetoric we often hear from ad agencies.

However, the survey is sponsored by native ad company TripleLift, and the questions behind those results are predictably leading:

  1. “Thinking about the advertising you see on the websites you frequently visit, how much do you agree or disagree with the following? I understand that the free content I view online is made possible by online advertising.”
  2. “How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements? I am more open to advertising that tells a story than advertising that simply sells a product.”

The survey goes on to list more stats that demonstrate audiences don’t have a problem with sponsored content:

  • 82 percent of respondents said sponsored content on business news sites is clearly paid for by a brand
  • 85 percent of respondents said sponsored content on entertainment sites is clearly paid for by a brand
  • 41 percent of respondents said sponsored content on news sites is clearly paid for by a brand
iab sponsored advertising adds value

That suggests an average of 16.5 percent of respondents who think sponsored content on either business news or entertainment sites isn’t clearly paid for by a brand, which seems remarkably low.

That the figure for news websites is comparatively low may reflect greater concern about the integrity of news, but it’s also probably a more honest look at consumer awareness of native ads.

Money vs trust

Given the growing prominence of native advertising in publisher ad strategies, it’s a shame that the IAB appears to have released some slightly disingenuous research that appears to be influenced by its sponsors. 

BuzzFeed, for example, just received $50 million of funding from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, in part due to its success in creating viral native ads for companies that audiences read and share, as Felix Salmon explained in a Medium post:

buzzfeed advertising felix salmon

And The New York Times recently decided to tone down the way it labels its native content – called “Paid Posts” – which reportedly was a reaction to marketers “bristling at all the [original] labelling, suggesting it turned away readers before they had a chance to judge the content based on its quality.”

Media companies old and new are embracing native ads, but there’s there’s clearly still tension between making ads that work and retaining consumer trust.

If publishers are to understand where to draw the lines, they need more honest, open, and transparent research, not statistics that appear to be one big native ad in themselves.

Image via blue-news.org used under a Creative Commons license.