3 ways to avoid John Oliver's native advertising nastiness


If you work in any facet of native advertising or sponsored content, then your inbox and Twitter feed was on fire this week with messages and replies from relatives, friends, and frenemies alike. Something you worked on was on TV, they laughed, and they needed to show you.

That’s right. We’re talking about John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and his take on native advertising. If you’ve yet to see the segment take a look below as Oliver pokes fun and expands upon some hard truths of the world of sponsored content.

Ok, so we’ve had our laughs and shed our tears, but what’s next? What can we do to improve upon the desolate future of the medium which Oliver predicts and ensure legitimate, earned success with your native advertising? Here are three suggestions for a sponsored content program you can be proud of.


One of Oliver’s major qualms with native advertising is it tricks readers into thinking what they are seeing is the same editorial content they find elsewhere in a publication. This is an easy issue to tackle as you have some solid research on your side; the IAB and Edelman Berland’s recent research study on sponsored content implores publications to go the distance when it comes to transparency and disclosure. Reader favourability of a website actually increases to over 50 per cent when a reader sees relevant content from an authoritative, trusted brand. 

Polar’s own aggregate data from our recent benchmarks report shows that users are actually 57 per cent more likely to click on a native ad which has subtle shading compared, compared to those with prominent shading or no shading at all. Readers prefer a clear indicator, which still blends into the site’s aesthetic. 

And speaking of disclosure, Oliver even points out the very show you're watching employed native advertising to promote Last Week Tonight on Buzzfeed earlier this year, a tactic HBO employs quite often!

Ensuring content is in line with a publication’s editorial focus

Readers are loyal to their trusted sources of news, especially those offering their unique take on current events. A Huffington Post reader shows up for a certain editorial angle, whereas Slate’s audience is based on their contrarian view of today’s issues. This is why, as a publisher, you need to choose which brands you work with very carefully. To quote a participant in the aforementioned survey, when asked what is most important to them in native advertising: “Make sure it is relevant to me. If it reflects the types of articles I am reading, then I will be more likely to need to seek out those advertisers.”

How does one accomplish this? Keep constant control over which brands you choose to partner with in native advertising, and never put yourself in a position where you don’t know what brand will be appearing in your pages. Joining an advertising network or backfilling your sponsored content can lead to an embarrassing marriage of brands and publications with no natural association to each other, or worse yet, contradictory values.

Trusted brands

Towards the end of the piece, Oliver concedes that brands using native advertising have been benign thus far, but sometimes companies with more nefarious inspirations will attempt to co-opt messages and push editorial content which supports what might prove to be their incorrect agenda. 

As a publication you’ve established and earned much trust with your audience, but it is also your responsibility to put in the work to maintain it as well. A successful native advertising program only exists with an engaged audience, and maintaing editorial independence while also choosing only trusted brands who share these values will go a long way with keeping those readers.

Many of these topics, with additional research data, are examined in our best practices presentations.  Contact us and ask to see one!