Ethics of Cat Videos, Guacamole, and Twizzlers

by studentuser1 on February 10, 2015 - 12:36am

EXTRA! EXTRA! The news industry is struggling to make profits.

This is not breaking news, as statistics have shown the print industry’s rapid decline and the expanding number of online news sources over-saturating the market. It is no surprise that making money in this industry is difficult. That is why in recent years, publishers have succumbed to their advertising partners’ new strategy, called native advertising.

What is native advertising? A broad definition is: a form of advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears (Wikipedia). Simply put it: an ad in disguise. For example, a company can pay a news organization to promote their product or service, in a format that almost seamlessly passes as a real piece of news. The only indication of it being an ad is a small script as the top of the article that says “sponsored post.”

 The lure of native advertising is in the money. After all, the majority of any publication’s revenue is made through ads. Websites, notably, are raking in millions in annual revenue by posting articles of cute cat videos sponsored by companies. Such websites are more entertainment focused (a procrastination trap), but even professional news sources, including The New York Times and The Atlantic, have integrated native advertising into their content. These acclaimed publications are willing to put their credibility and readers’ loyalty on the line in order to meet the bottom line.

Deontological ethics will be applied to support the stance that native advertising is not an ethical practice in news sources. Immanuel Kant, a key figure in the field of deontology, puts emphasis on abiding by one’s duty to differentiate when facing a moral dilemma. As a channel of mass communication, news sources have the duty to transmit accurate and non-biased information. Publishers have a duty to be honest and transparent with their readers, which Kant would label as their a priori. Even if the advertisements do not dramatically affect the readers’ emotional stability, per se, it is still wrong to be deceitful, no matter what the consequence. A professional news source has the categorical imperative to be honest, because if it were to be a universal maxim, society would not function if news sources constantly served faulty information. (Leaving communist nations to another debate.)

If news publications want to remain ethical, native advertising must come to a halt. From motivation to execution, there is no transparency involved in the process. A small disclaimer at the top of the page is not enough to clarify their intent. It is clearly a marketing strategy aimed to deceive people into thinking they are reading a legitimate article, when in fact the information may be skewed in order to promote an organization. By all means, marketers can use their creativity to reach audiences, but it should be done in a manner where the consumer is kept aware. On “Last Week Tonight,” Jamie Oliver compared journalism and advertising to guacamole and Twizzlers: separate, they’re great, but together, they’re “really gross.”


Great topic selection, there isn’t enough debate going on right now regarding native advertising and its ethical implications. However, deontological ethics could not be applied by an industry that works towards a goal (profit) and not for a moral imperative of doing the right thing. Teleological ethics would seem more applicable for the news industry. The struggle for print media to survive is indeed real, and if the industry’s goal is to survive, while still making a profit, new revenue streams such as native advertising must be considered.

The true issue lies in the way people are interpreting native advertising. Such content is labeled as “advertising supplement” or “sponsored piece” and readers should be aware of such labels and be able to differentiate advertising from actual journalistic content. This type of marketing is indeed quite clever and may seem unethical, but, if it ultimately helps save journalism from its current hardships, native advertising may be a solution that results in more gain than loss.

In today’s increasingly wired society, print media must compete with instantaneous social media postings as well as with internet based news sources. And these platforms don’t necessarily worry about ethical implications, why should the news media be any different then?

PS: “the media” in this comment refers to the private industry not to state owned outlets

I had not heard of native advertising before, and I can see how it come to an ethical dilemma. After all, the news is supposed to be an unbiased provider of information (although, for many news networks like Fox News this is not the case anyways) and it can become blurred and cloudy when viewers cannot distinguish when they are being fed information with other intentions. Similar to advertising to children, the morality of advertisements diminishes when those being subject to it are unaware of it.