Native Advertising — The Ads You Cannot See

Below is my guest column from Foolproof, an organization that teaches about and advocates for financial literacy:


Know anyone who likes advertising? Yeah, me neither. People use remote controls, they buy subscription video services from HBO to Showtime to Netflix, and increasingly they use ad blockers, all so they don’t have to see commercial content.

As viewers become more adapt at ad avoidance, marketers become more covert in disseminating their corporate messages. Today, native advertising and content marketing are the most popular forms of this stealth marketing, and it is unlikely that you’ve heard about them. That’s the point.

Native Advertising

Native advertising is commercial messages that have been designed to be indigenous to the editorial environment in which they exist. In social media, so-called “in-feed ads” look just like other content. For example, on Facebook posts will have all the elements you are used to—Like, Comment, and Share buttons, and the name of the organization that posted the information. However, under the name is the word “Sponsored” in ghosted gray type, so faint as to be almost invisible. That placement is purposeful; what normally appears in that space is the time stamp—information that is readily overlooked. But this is not just on Facebook. Similar hidden iconography appears on other social media, such as Twitter and Instagram.

Native advertising is commercial messages that have been designed to be indigenous to the editorial environment in which they exist.

More hidden are custom native ads that appear on sites like the New York Times and BuzzFeed. For the former, ads are disguised to look like newspaper articles. They have headlines and body copy (typically written by former journalists) and photography or infographics. While the newspaper will argue that they label the content as advertising—which is true—like their social media counterparts it is so obscured as to be superfluous. BuzzFeed’s advertising model is completely dependent on native advertising, which can consist of anything from their “Dear Kitten” series of videos for Purina or their popular lists (called listicles), such as “9 Things That Have Changed In The Last 20 Years” which is an elaborate ad for Motorola cell phones. What helps hide the commercial aspect of this communication is that not all lists are ads, causing further content confusion.

Now fully 90% of websites use some form of native advertising, so it is almost inevitable that you have engaged with it—knowingly or unknowingly.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is any communication produced by an advertiser that is intended to provide the consumer with useful information or entertain and does not contain an explicit sales message. This advertising strategy is intended to position the advertiser as a friend and an important source of useful information, as they are experts in the product or service they provide.

Let me give you an example: Van Winkle’s ( is a website with articles about anything you would ever want to know about sleep, from the sleep habits of superheroes to the Girl Scouts having a sleepover at the White House with Michelle Obama. It is fun, engaging, even informative. The site is produced by Caspar, a mattress company, a fact you are unlikely to discover unless you search way at the bottom of the site.

More typically, the content is contained on the advertiser’s site and then disseminated via social media, where the advertiser’s connection to the content is obscured. For example, Coca-Cola’s corporate site is called Journey. The home page contains the well-known red logo. However, approximately 40 percent of the content on the site is not connected to the brand even while it further their interests. These posts appear in a section called “unbottled,” they are written by popular bloggers who have their own following, and are disseminated via social media.


Social media led to the proliferation of stealth marketing, because it enabled marketers to reduce their advertising expenses. Online, advertising is delineated as paid, owned and earned media. Paid media is traditional advertising. Owned media is content the company produces itself, such as a website, Facebook page, or Instagram post. Earned media is free; the best example being when consumers—meaning you and I—share the content for the advertiser.

The more we share, the more money advertisers save.

So, What Can You Do?

First, turn off all notifications on your phone except for those you absolutely must have. Electronic pings are designed to get you to spend time online. Once you pick up the device, it is very likely that you will not simply look at one app or one email, but also check Facebook or Snapchat or play a turn at Scrabble.

Second, look for words like “sponsored” “paid post” and “from our partners.” Part of what makes this advertising so hard to discern is that there is no uniformity in labeling.

Third, use ad blockers like Ghostery and Disconnect. Increasingly sites are asking that you turn them off to get content. But at least it puts you back in the driver’s seat to decide how much you want the content versus how much of your online behavior you are willing to disclose.

Finally—and most important—remember that your phone is first and foremost a purveyor of advertising. It wasn’t created to help you reach out and touch someone. It was created to help you reach out and sell someone.