Native advertising is all the rage in the publishing world.

I read a statistic last week that most publications are at least experimenting with the concept.

For those of you not familiar with native advertising, it refers to a publication serving up paid stories and editorial content the same way. You’ll hear this technique also referred to as sponsored content and branded journalism.

With no one clicking on banner ads, publications hope to find economic salvation in native advertising.

But here’s the conundrum.

The editorial integrity of any publication depends on trust. While readers will put up with a lot, they won’t tolerate being fooled. Yet, the short-term value of native advertising increases when you fool the reader into thinking he or she is reading legit editorial content.

In practical terms, this means the less you call out native advertising as paid content, the more short-term value it brings. If you think native advertising only finds a home in low-brow media like BuzzFeed and its ilk, think again. It was actually The Atlantic that received a public flogging for not adequately highlighting a Scientology story as native advertising.

The Atlantic - native advertising

How much have things changed at The Atlantic?

I’d say a fair amount.

I went on The Atlantic’s home page where the feed delivered three stories:

The Atlantic’s home page

The circled story is IBM native advertising. You have the “sponsored content” moniker in light gray type above the headline, the headline is not bold like editorial content from The Atlantic, and the byline includes company attribution.

If you click on the IBM native ad, you get this:

The Atlantic - IBM native ad

Does this fool the reader?

I suppose some could mistake the highlight in the story stream as editorial, but by the time you reach the actual story, I don’t know how one could miss that this content comes to you compliments of IBM.

Compare the IBM native ad to where the Atlantic’s approach was about a year ago with this GE native ad:

The Atlantic - GE native ad

Forget blurring the line.

The line has disappeared with nothing about sponsored content, no byline from the company and no clear disclaimer.

I coined the phrase “pearned media” last December to describe what happens when a publication so deftly blends earned media with paid media that the reader can’t distinguish between the two.

In spite of The Atlantic’s journey to find that middle ground, I think we’ll continue to see media properties pushing the boundaries and landing in the pearned media category.

Horrid nomenclature aside – shouldn’t this technique be called paid storytelling? – native advertising opens the door for PR to jump into the content marketing game.

More to come.