The term “fake news” has become popular since President Donald Trump took office in January. But on Monday night at Penn State’s Foster Auditorium, Queens College media studies professor Mara Einstein focused on a different definition of “fake news.”
Einstein, author of “Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing, and the Covert World of the Digital Sell,” explained that the advertising industry has turned away from advertisements that were once “in your face,” to responding with advertisements that are masqueraded as news stories, referred to as “content marketing.”
After a career as an executive at NBC, MTV Networks and advertising agencies, Einstein has focused much of her research on the cost of free content.
“When we talk about fake news and advertising, it is content created by advertisers and publishers, or what we were talking about in terms of native ads and content marketing,” Einstein said. “Fake news is created to generate advertising dollars.”
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In-feed native advertising resembles the formatting in which it is found — it is presented in the feed surrounded by Facebook, Twitter or Instagram posts, with the word “sponsored” or “promoted” replacing the small time stamp normally there.
Custom data, a technique Buzzfeed uses occasionally, includes the use of listicles or videos that promote a brand or product, without revealing that it is an advertisement until the audience has already invested time on the material.
“Videos are really important in this space for two reasons,” Einstein said. “One, people are reading less and less and want to engage with video rather than engage with written text. And also, as more things move to mobile, more of the things in mobile are going to be created in video.”
The Journal of Advertising found in a 2015 study that only 17 percent of participants recognize native advertising, Einstein said. Research that was done by Stanford with middle school students to college-aged individuals found 82 percent of middle-schoolers could not determine the difference between a news story and an advertisement.
Einstein said that the confusion is caused by multiple reasons — the majority of the content is produced by editorial staffs at a newspaper, an absence of uniformity in labeling and relaxed regulation from the Federal Trade Commission. She said the hidden advertisements are not only found online, but in television and print, as well.
“I would go and present this stuff on college campuses and I would show different kinds of native advertising, and I could hear the gasps going up in the room,” Einstein said.
“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak,” she said. “That’s pretty damning.”
What we see is a fundamental breakdown between what we used to call church and state — between advertising and editorial,” Einstein said.
Aubree Rader is a Penn State journalism student.