The history of native advertising: Why brand promotion is getting more sophisticated

The history of native advertising: Why brand promotion is getting more sophisticated

The history of native advertising: Why brand promotion is getting more sophisticated
Sofiia Kuzmina
Editor at InAppStory

Traditional advertising on the internet – bright banners, website pop-ups, YouTube commercials – is gradually losing popularity. At least 42.7% of internet users around the world have installed ad blockers, which means they categorically refuse to waste their time on traditional ads. However, native advertising, according to a study by Time Inc, is positively perceived by 90% of the internet audience, because it is often done creatively and allows you to look at the brand from a new perspective.


Native advertising is commonly referred to as a kind of advertising which does not particularly stand out against the background of the rest of the content on the website where it is placed, except perhaps for the signature that it is "sponsored content" or a "promo." Promotion of a product or service is organically combined with information which is useful to the user, and may be used more often than purely promotional content. Product placement in films, when James Bond subtly displays an Omega watch in the shot, joint projects of major media and streaming services, for example, mini-games and tests like "Who are you from movie X," partner blog materials with an overview of the pros and cons of certain products in general, and brand mentions – all these are types of native advertising.


Despite the fact that this approach became popular relatively lately, in the 2010s, you cannot call it an innovation. Native advertising actually began to be used several decades ago. In this article we will tell you how it all started and how it is changing now.


First successful native advertising examples


Native advertising appeared at the very beginning of the 20th century. The choice of promotion channels was then limited to the following formats:

  • Publishing content in an existing major publication.       
  • Creating your own magazine.       
  • Sponsoring the release of radio and television shows, as well as entire radio stations and channels.       
  • Product placement.       


The approach to promotion was then less delicate: in advertisements for goods and services, catchy headlines, clichés and hard selling of brands was used. Advertising content in articles prevailed over information which was useful to the reader, a situation which is now avoided. Nevertheless, for its time, the first attempts to create content tailored to the interests of the consumer were very successful. And they also gave impetus to the development of this type of promotion as a whole.


John Deere and The Furrow Magazine


In 1895, the owner of the agricultural company Deere & Company created a magazine in which he began to publish useful articles for farmers. The articles subtly mentioned Deere & Company tools that could make farming easier. The success was overwhelming: the magazine's popularity grew steadily, and by 1912 its circulation reached 4 million subscribers!

The Furrow Magazine 1897
One of the earliest editions of the magazine, 1897


The secret of success


John Deere shifted the focus from direct advertising of his own products to addressing the problems of farmers, putting consumer interests at the forefront. Thanks to this, the magazine still exists today: it has received a cult status among agricultural workers and continues to expand its audience. Now, The Furrow Magazine is published in 4 languages ​​in 115 countries, and also has its own website and pages on social networks.


Michelin Red Guide


In 1900, one of the founders of the Michelin tire brand published a travel guide. It was originally a list of hotels, repair shops, fast food restaurants, and other places that a traveler might find useful. The goal was to encourage people to travel more often by car and thus increase the demand for their product: car tires. Until 1920, the guide was poorly distributed, but then a restaurant rating was added to the guide, which spurred demand.


Red Guide 1929
Cover of the Red Guide, 1929


The secret of success


Promotion of the topic of travel played into the hands of the brand's image. Thanks to the increased number of positive mentions of the brand in its time, Michelin tires still occupy first place in popularity worldwide and are not poised to give up that position anytime soon. Truth be told, the Michelin guide itself has now become a separate brand, and is associated most of all with first-class restaurants – getting a Michelin star is the dream of almost any owner or chef in a restaurant.


Radio and TV shows sponsored by Procter & Gamble


P&G Company has repeatedly sponsored the production of serials and dramas, popularly nicknamed "soap operas." They got this name because of the advertising of household goods during the shows, including ads for soap.


The secret of success


P&G Company had well identified its target audience for its products in the 1930s – housewives – and had purposefully invested in the content that interested them. Despite the somewhat aggressive advertising of their products, the brand's sales doubled after the very first airing of the radio show “Ma Perkins.”

How native ad formats have evolved


The spread of the internet has provoked the emergence of new ad formats, including native ones. Publications in newspapers and magazines have moved to online formats and are now complemented by blog posts and social media posts. Direct TV advertising was supplemented with the format of reviews in video blogs; sponsored content began to take the form of game tests and joint social projects. Sponsors try to make ads suitable for the interests of the audience of the placement website. This makes native advertising more personalized – specially adapted for certain groups of users. Today, the most common formats are:

  • Affiliate materials in the media, for example, articles, recommendations, and other text materials on one of the topics that the selected media usually writes about. The articles mention the sponsor’s brand and usually have a special note that it is an advertisement.       
  • Gamified promotion, for example, contests with prizes from partners, simple games, quizzes, and tests.       
  • Blog reviews, if it is indicated which brand sponsored them.      
  • Product placement on the pages of influencers in social networks.       
  • Own-branded media on a website or in an application.      


In the past, marketing campaigns were focused on the number of brand mentions, but this approach no longer works – people are tired of endless advertising. Now the emphasis has shifted to high-quality satisfaction of the needs of the selected target audience, and this is where the success of native advertising campaigns lies.


Why it is important to choose the right native ad format


Experiments to attract new audiences and attempts to increase sales have often turned into a dramatic of the entire marketing campaign. For example, consider what happened with a well-known publication that posted an advertisement for a religious movement.


The Atlantic and the Church of Scientology


One of the most famous and respected U.S. news portals, The Atlantic, once posted an article on the Church of Scientology. The article highlighted the success of the Church and its leader over the past year, David Miscavige. The Atlantic had a reputation for being a quality publication with professional journalists on the team, but this article did not provide useful information to the reader, consisted of crude propaganda, and stood out sharply from the background of other materials on the website. Despite the fact that the article was marked as sponsored content, the audience disliked it so much that the article received thousands of negative comments in just a few hours, and finally was completely removed from the website.


The Atlantic Church of Scientology article
Native ads are not that simple


Key mistakes

  • The propaganda style of the article was in sharp contrast to other materials on the website.       
  • The piece lacked useful information for the reader – it was basically a factual listing of the achievements of the organization for the year.       
  • The doubtful reputation of the sponsor reinforced the negative audience reaction.      



3 modern examples where native advertising worked perfectly 


Spotify’s special promotion for Netflix’s Stranger Things


In 2017, the second season of this sensational series was released. Spotify added a small test users could take, based on their favorite songs, that informed them which character of the series they most resembled. In addition, it was suggested to listen to the personalized playlist of the character. The page design was also changed to match the style of the series.


Netflix Spotify Stranger Things
A setting of a test results page on Spotify


Why it worked


The personal approach to users and the preservation of the style of the series made this ad interesting for Spotify’s audience. This integration was received very warmly by users – they willingly shared their playlists on social networks, and the #StrangerThings2 hashtag stayed on the top of American Twitter for three weeks. As a result, the sensation around the release of the series lasted for several extra months. Netflix's native advertising campaign was also mentioned in many leading media outlets, including Time magazine.


Taco Bell Snapchat masks


At the height of Snapchat's popularity, Mexican-styled fast food chain Taco Bell sponsored special masks for the 2016 Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. Users could apply a mask that turned their head into a huge taco. The brand logo was also placed at the bottom of the screen.


Taco Bell Snapchat masks
Everyone could put taco on


Why it worked


Relying on entertainment content helped to narrow the distance between the brand and the user. Thanks to an unexpected and very hilarious concept, over 224 million Snapchat users used these masks in just the first day! However, nowadays it is better to invest in masks for Instagram – the audience of this application in 2021 is much larger than the audience of Snapchat.


Extraordinary women: Piaget


In 2020 the luxury jewelry brand collaborated with the Financial Times to publish a series of articles about women who managed to break through the glass ceiling and, despite widespread prejudice, take leading positions in various companies. The brand was not mentioned at all in the personal stories; however, the photos of the woman on the page discreetly showed Piaget Company’s watches, necklaces, and rings, and at the top of the page was a widget with the sponsor's logo.


Extraordinary woman: Piaget
Piaget's Extraordinary Women in Financial Times


Why it worked


Inspirational stories of strong women fit well with the desires of the modern reader of the Financial Times, so the material was warmly received. This advertising campaign has since been migrated to leading media outlets around the world. In 2021, a continuation of the project with new subjects was released, and Piaget is going to make this series an ​​annual one.


How to choose the right native ad format


Since its inception, native advertising has proven itself to be a powerful customer acquisition tool. Looking back at the examples above, we have formulated some simple tips to help you quickly navigate and launch a native ad campaign that your audience will love:

  • Determine the target audience you want to attract and the type of content they prefer.
  • Choose a site carefully to host your affiliate material. The values ​​of its audience should align with the values ​​of your potential customers. For instance, if your brand produces decorative cosmetics, you should think about cooperation with fashion magazines and beauty bloggers, and if you release specialized software for accountants, then you should select a site that focuses on the topic of accounting.
  • Your material should be well-balanced with the other materials on the selected site. Otherwise, it will most likely cause a negative reaction from the users. For instance, if users visit a resource to read articles on how to invest, they are unlikely to be delighted with material on cooking steak. It is quite another matter if the material from the same brand tells about the risks of investing in beef production, and how to wisely invest money in that industry.
  • Do not praise the brand. An article, video, Story or any other format should focus on providing benefits to the user. Otherwise, there is a high risk of receiving sharply negative feedback.
  • Try different approaches for creating native ads in order to increase the outreach to potential customers and their engagement with your service or product, and at the same time figure out which format is the best for you.