Before the advent of online news and entertainment, advertising and its cousin, public relations, were like pornography: You generally knew it when you saw it.

But with the ever-increasing torrent of Internet “content” splashed across the Web, much of it not only corporate-sponsored but corporate-created, sussing the actual message from this medium gets pretty tricky. So how do you spot Native Advertising? Maybe this John Oliver video helps:

This trend toward dressing (some would say disguising) advertising and public relations as news is driven by economics. A standard press release costs only a few hundred dollars to compose and distribute electronically, making the Net a low-cost distribution channel.

Content-hungry publishers, in turn, can generate fresh text fast and cheap by just forwarding the corporate handouts. ScreamingMedia, ad guru Jay Chiat’s content consulting company, estimates that companies with a significant online presence could spend as much as $500,000 per month generating their own content. The price of news sites for most PR content? Free.

This option is increasingly important after a year in which, according to the report “Dot-Com Shutdowns,” 30 percent of Internet closures fell into the content category. Despite these failures, the need for new content grows, and content providers are under more pressure than ever to keep costs down. That’s good news if you are a company or PR firm trying to plug a product or service.

So What Exactly Is Native Advertising?

Native ads are actually paid advertisements that are embedded in or cohesive with a page’s content or assimilated entirely into a page’s design, and so consistent with the behavior of the platform, that viewers simply feel that the ads belong. Of all different digital advertisements, native ads may be causing the most confusion of all. One thing is for sure: native advertisement designers definitely are not micromanaging their creativity!

This is not because the idea of native advertising is so overly complex. The concept isn’t complex at all, it’s pretty simple, actually. Native ads are basically advertisements that aren’t looking like ads at all.

They rather look like original and organic pieces of information, like how to get to Yosemite from Merced, or content that fits perfectly and seamlessly into all users’ experiences, even if they’ve been to every single National Park across the nation. When you load an app or open a webpage, you generally aren’t looking to get loaded with ads.

Well, native ads are taking advantage of this and present ads in such a way that they are not annoying, obstructive, or even noticeable. They allow you to quiet your mind and focus on what really counts in life, so it seems. And that’s exactly what’s so tricky about native advertisements…

Pressure to scoop

The exact number of news destination sites and sites featuring news “areas” (such as portals or special interest sites) is almost inestimable, but almost 42 million users visit the top 10 general news sites, according to Media Metrix. Given such competition, even sites with professional editorial staff need such frequent refreshing that PR tends to slip into places that, in the print world, might be verboten.

“It’s a lot easier now for PR to become news,” says Tom Hespos, an Internet strategist for the ad agency and consultancy Mezzina Brown & Partners. “Online news outlets are not only competing against one another but against traditional media.

The pressure to be first or to scoop the others is immense. Rushed stories can mean less time for fact-checking and less time to interview subjects. As a result, you see a lot of ‘clip jobs’ from press releases.” Check also this interesting post on why some people get risk management and others don’t.