Think Critically, Clean Critically – “Native Advertising” Part 1

To me, “native advertising” evokes the cast of “Madmen” in vintage business suits and starched white shirts sitting cross-legged, somberly thumping on bongo drums with one hand and hoisting diet sodas with the other. Native advertising is not exotic; it is an example of how the line between fact and hype is getting harder to discern.

If you manufacture product, if you are involved in critical cleaning, understanding the ways in which you are being influenced will help you to make better decisions.  Click the link below to learn more about:

Native advertising
Traditional advertising
Product literature
Trade magazines
Outreach by government agencies, non-profits and trade organizations
Peer reviewed articles

Native Advertising
While the term “native advertising” is often used to refer to online articles or videos (at least according to Wikipedia), as David Lazarus explains in his recent article in the Los Angeles Times (1), the concept can be used to describe the blurring of lines between advertisements and informational articles.   

Lazarus talks about a recent extreme case involving a major department store, online influencers (who were compensated for their supposedly independent opinions), and a fashion website. The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice became involved.  But enough about retail therapy!

Traditional advertising
I read ads, go to vendor websites, and explore trade shows. Of course, advertising is fraught with hyperbole.  However, in the technical arena, advertising can alert you to new products and ideas. If you read only the technical literature, you may not know whether a technique is a pipe-dream or has been commercialized.

Sometimes, what is omitted from an ad can be important. For example, if the cleaning solvent being extolled is compared only to very mild solvents, there is a clue that while it might not damage the substrate (the object you are trying to clean), it may not be very effective in removing the soil. If an aqueous cleaning system is described as having rapid throughput, but no rinse system or drying system is described, you may end up with dripping-wet components with lots of residue of cleaning chemistry.  The ads won’t tell the whole story; they can be a great place to start.

Product Literature
Go to a vendor/supplier website and you can find a plethora of product literature. Approach a booth a trade show; and you may be papered with fact sheets. White papers, reports, and other self-published papers may have more than a small element of commercialism. We have heard some experts describe Technical Data Sheets as factual documents; others consider TDS to be nothing more than an advertisement. Even a Safety Data Sheet, which ought to be fairly cut and dry, may have elements of advertising.   Look over the literature; but consider the source, the viewpoint.

Print and on-line publications may have “advertorials” or special advertising sections. Advertisers pay to have papers included.

Occasionally, we run into publications that require contributors to run advertisements. The entire publication is exclusively an advertorial.  If you notice that in issue after issue all of the articles are either authored by or feature advertisements, you might be a bit suspicious. If doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a “pay to play” policy; it does mean that the editors might consider looking for a broader range of contributors.

Trade Magazines
I think it is impossible to have a completely unbiased scientific article. Even peer-reviewed articles can have a commercial bent; each author sees the world and interprets the data based on his or her own experiences and affiliations. We have noticed, for example, that experts involved in the manufacture of aqueous cleaning equipment may not have the understanding or perspective to make comparisons with solvent cleaning equipment – and vice versa. Someone who is deeply involved in and invested in a particular cleaning technology is understandably enthusiastic about that technology. 

We don’t think that being a vendor or supplier implies a lack of understanding –  to the contrary,  in many respects they are the experts. When we put together the second edition of our Handbook for Critical Cleaning (2), we used the expertise of many people who make or supply cleaning agents and cleaning equipment. We edited.  We set a limit on trade names and commercial references; and we insisted that statements about the inferiority of the competition be backed up by quantifiable data illustrating that inferiority. It is difficult to edit; and outside reviewers may miss nuances of viewpoint or even of commercialism.  If we didn’t edit with enough discernment, let us know!

Webinars, Seminars
Some conferences and webinars have an independent editorial policy. This means, that speakers are judged on merit. At the same time, just as with our Handbook, conferences include speakers whose business is selling cleaning equipment or cleaning chemistries.  In some instances, those speakers may appear (dare I say dominate?) conference after conference after conference. Keep in mind, that whether or not they pay for the privilege of speaking (and in many cases they do not), you are getting to hear one viewpoint.  Find yourself some variety!  Even better,  if you have an independent view point or a good case study, volunteer to speak yourself.

Some free webinars and conferences are directly sponsored by vendors. Don’t ignore the opportunity to learn, but keep in mind who is providing the information (and maybe coffee and sandwiches). 

Conference organizers may provide opportunities for sponsored programs within the conference; and you may or may not have to pay for them. They may also provide attendees with a free “Supplier Showcase” right on the trade show floor.  Again, be aware of the motivations of those speaking.

Watch, listen, and read critically
I ‘ve heard people say in sort of a snarky tone: “consider the source.”  We suggest you consider the source, but in a productive manner.  We often say that knowledge is power, if you use it.  However, before you can even use that knowledge, you have to understand the motivations for conveying that knowledge.  People communicate for reasons; once you understand those reasons, you can consider the source productively.

The lines between editorial content and commercial advertising have always been a little blurry. Sometimes, we are told where there is an advertorial. In other cases, the lines may be more subtle.

In the next installment, we’ll help you to become productively-suspicious about Outreach by

Government Agencies
Non-profits and trade organizations
Peer Reviewed Articles

1. David Lazarus, “Lines blur between ads and news,” Los Angeles Times Business Section, Friday, March 18, 2016.

2. By Shannon Harell,  “FTC Enters Proposed Consent Order Against Lord & Taylor for Native Advertising Campaign,” Information Law Group, posted  March 22, 2016

3. B. Kanegsberg and E. Kanegsberg, ed. “Handbook for Critical Cleaning,” CRC Press/Taylor and Francis 2011.

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