Axios is running ads from Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg disguised as reported news stories, part of a controversial practice known as “native advertising.”
The Bloomberg campaign has spent hundreds of millions on ads, including primetime slots at the Super Bowl and Democratic debates. It is now incorporating native advertising—ads designed to look like a site’s normal content—into its campaign strategy. Axios has plastered Bloomberg ads on its home page, individual stories, and the Axios AM newsletter. While labeled “a message from Mike Bloomberg,” the ads are mocked up to resemble actual Axios stories and appear in the same scroll. Clicking on the ads directs the reader to Bloomberg’s campaign website.
A homepage excerpt for an Axios report
Native advertising from the Bloomberg campaign made to look like an Axios piece.
Axios published the sponsored content after the former New York City mayor paid Instagram “influencers” and hundreds of Californians on Facebook to post pro-Bloomberg memes and messages. Axios itself broke the news that Facebook would allow Bloomberg-paid content to remain up so long as posters make an effort to disclose their ties to the campaign.
“Like most media, we allow ads from companies, groups and politicians, provided they adhere to our guidelines,” an Axios spokeswoman said in an email.
The ethics of native advertising are particularly fraught in the media world, where ads are sometimes crafted with the goal of being mistaken for journalism. The Atlantic was widely criticized in 2013 for running sponsored content from the Church of Scientology. The Washington Free Beacon reported in 2019 that newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, collected millions from a Chinese government mouthpiece by running full-page ads designed to resemble newspaper stories.
“Native advertising has been found to deceive readers. Journalists know this,” the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow Center noted last year. “Ultimately, the trust they work hard to secure may be jeopardized by the creation and dissemination of native advertisements.”
Axios has long been notable for relying more on sponsored content and native advertising than other outlets. A 2018 Buzzfeed profile noted that Axios offers “truncated custom ads on its stream of stories and within its newsletters for advertisers like Boeing and Koch Industries. These short ads look and feel … kind of like Axios posts.”
Bloomberg’s Axios ads are part of a half-billion dollar ad blitz that has led other 2020 candidates to accuse the billionaire of attempting to buy the election. The campaign, which did not respond to request for comment at press time, made a noticeable push during Tuesday night’s debate, angering some liberal activists.