A bunch of readers are still sounding off:
Thought I’d bring this to your attention, vis-a-vis your back-and-forth with Buzzfeed: the Native Advertising Summit, “The first conference dedicated to defining and discussing the future of native advertising.” Unfortunately, the summit is mostly over, but I’m hoping there’s a stream of it. I know a lot of these people. They mean well, but try as one might, they have trouble understanding what the problem is with Native Advertising, starting with that atrocious name.
Another points to a troubling detail:
One big difference with Buzzfeed’s sponsored articles is that they appear in searches and are, still, undifferentiated from “real” articles. What other sites show the ads along with the editorial content? Up until now ads were ephemeral. They appeared on a site and were clearly ads. When the site is archived the ads were not (though the archives may also display ads). This extends the confusion far down the road. With sponsored content that is archived the ad, and any bias, extends well into the future. I am not sure what the consequences are but I doubt they are good.
Another reader isn’t too concerned:
Buzzfeed’s convolution of content and advertising seems like a pretty minor sin in the grand scheme of our modern media. Our media has been replete with sponsored content for decades in the form of DC elites leaking information and using journalist mouth pieces to win political arguments. The articles that Judith Miller wrote in the run up to the Iraq war are sponsored content, just not in the way we typically think about it. That kind of sponsorship is far more insidious than an advertisement made to look like content.
Another goes in depth with a helpful and revealing screenshot below:
Nobody expects BuzzFeed to be the standard bearer of modern journalism. But I think most people would want them to be honest brokers of their product.
If their product is cool stuff they found on the internet, then that should be presented as such. And unlike The Atlantic, almost nothing on BuzzFeed is original content – and that’s okay (kind of) because they almost always point that out and provide a link to the original source. Think of BuzzFeed as the Huffington Post of cat videos (it’s no coincidence that they both have the same founder – Jonah Peretti). But the problem is that BuzzFeed is scraping content from other sites and then using it to promote their sponsor’s products and they are doing so without sharing revenue with the actual creator of the content. Perhaps the content creator may get a ‘bump’ in internet traffic, but that’s all they’re ever going to get.
To illustrate the point (problem?) I took a screenshot of BuzzFeed today (February 22, 2013). In those spaces you can explicitly see the words “partner” or “featured partner” and brands that you recognize like Honda, Fuze, IFC and The Daily Beast. These are obviously ads. Maybe the content looks just like all the other stuff, but they aren’t fooling anyone.
But that is not all of the sponsored content on your screen. Not even a little bit. Most of the sponsored content is hidden. Look at the posts I’ve highlighted in orange. The ‘Hot on the Web’ section is simply a collection of links to partner sites like The Onion, People Magazine and The Atlantic. The story about cyberbullying is an excerpt from a book by Emily Bazelon and sponsored by Random House – but you don’t find out about that until after you’ve read the whole article. That picture of Bert down at the bottom is an ad for Halls lozenges and the article about some guy selling his socks on ebay is just some guy pushing his own webpage. The music section is brought to you by streaming music company radio and the FTW badge is brought to you by Fuze – a registered trademark of Coca-Cola. But I think the greatest offender is the headline story about Best Picture nominees which is brought to you by (Dunh! Dunh! Dunh!) The Academy Awards.
But on top of the ads marked as ads and the ads masquerading as content there are some gray areas where scraped content and advertising cross paths again, but the content isn’t necessarily sponsored by anyone. In these situations I’ve marked the content yellow. In this grey area (yellow area?) we have Andrew Kacynski “writing” what is simply a repurposed press release from the WWE, another repurposed press release from Billboard magazine and another glorified press release about an innovative use of the White Album from website Dust and Grooves. There’s a suspiciously in depth description of an incident on the Kathy Griffin show, as well as posts which are lifted almost verbatim from their sources – a liquor infographic taken in its whole from an artist on the Behance network and a video of some kid dissing the NBA that’s been lifted from Los That Sports.
BuzzFeed’s problem isn’t that there’s an unmarked article here or there that’s just a glorified advertorial, like The Atlantic. BuzzFeed’s problem is that it’s all glorified advertorials, with the occasional piece of ‘original’ content (and by ‘original’ content, I mean something they scrape from somewhere else and only casually make reference to the actual original, if they make mention at all).
Update from a reader who objects to the problematic previous entry:
The reader may take offense with the re-appropriation of content on BuzzFeed found on other websites, but the posts marked in orange and yellow are not sponsored stories. That is to say, BuzzFeed received no compensation from any of the so-called “sponsors” of any of those stories. Every piece marked in orange or yellow was either written independently by editorial staff at BuzzFeed or, in the case of the stories from other publishers in the “Big Stories” column or the row of thumbnails on top, link directly to those publisher’s websites.
Suggesting that these are “ads” or toeing the line into advertising is a fairly ridiculous standard – the cover story that is supposedly “sponsored by the Academy Awards” is a timeline of each Best Picture nominee’s path from conception to actually being made, written by Richard Rushfield, a veteran entertainment reporter formerly of the LA Times. “Copyranter” is a paid blogger at BuzzFeed (his writing is no more sponsored than your “Cool Ad Watch”), and since when is publishing book excerpts or covering press releases considered advertising? Held to this standard, much of the entire blogosphere would be considered advertising, including the Dish.
I work in the business department at BuzzFeed and spent most of the day following your talk defending the valid points I thought you made. But do please try to avoid publishing unfounded accusations (like the suggestion that the writer of the Sony ad wrote its subsequent product review on the site). It hurts your credibility and takes attention away from the much more pertinent, and important, criticisms you have to make.
Longtime reader, new subscriber to the Dish. Like you, I am also suspicious of the sponsored posts on Buzzfeed, but I’m not sure it’s unprecedented. My mother spent many years working at Newsweek in charge of producing the magazine’s special sections. These sections were written in a different font than the magazine, but were in center of the book and were essentially advertorials. Special sections were on subjects as varied as heart health, fall fashion, the national parks, etc. My mother got writers who were experts on these subjects to write articles, and the sections drew in advertisers who wouldn’t normally buy ads in a general interest publication.
The articles in these special sections was not written by the advertisers per se, but they definitely were not written by Newsweek’s journalists. The purpose of the special sections was too draw ad dollars, so they usually weren’t hard hitting, And there’s no question that they emerged from the business side of the magazine. It’s not an exact analogue to what Buzzfeed is doing, but it isn’t that much of a departure either.
This blurred line isn’t new; it’s just new to the Internet. Radio announcers have been doing it for nearly a century. You listen to local DJs with a wide audience, and in between jokes and gags they launch into a 3-minute soliloquy about the newest Italian joint in town, live on air as part of the “show”. At no point do they reference that it’s sponsored content or an advertisement. But regular fans of the show catch on mostly due to repetition and the fact that the content slides into an “uncanny valley” of entertainment. Buzzfeed readers will figure out the cues too. I’ve already begun to.
Update from a reader, who counters the previous one:
This may have been true a century ago, but for decades it has been illegal. Fine-and-imprisonment illegal. A sponsored mention must be identified as such, as part of the mention itself. Radio staff must not only sign affidavits saying they understand this policy, they also must annually view presentations about the policy and pass an exam about it. That’s how illegal it is.
Are there still blurred lines? Yes; you’ll still hear a DJ thank Taco Bell for dropping off samples of that new item on their menu, it tasted great. But that will last 15 seconds or less, it will be recorded and logged. 3-minute soliloquies about ANYTHING on a music radio station are the kiss of death anyway.
Another on radio ads:
I had an interesting realization this morning on the way to work: I listen to moderately disguised sponsored content on the radio all the time. I love Philly Sports radio and tune in any time I’m in a car. Their ad model includes their popular personalities endorsing products in their own voice without a clear delineation between content and ads. The ads are unmistakeably about products, but sometimes are so woven into the discussion at hand and so tonally similar that it’s hard to tell.
The interesting realization, given my general agreement with you on the issue, is that in that context I honestly don’t mind at all and – egad! – I’ve actually purchased some products that were advertised. I can’t recall ever buying anything because of a web ad, but our mortgage, wedding rings, and some home electronics are all from “sponsored content” I heard. Sure, radio is a totally different medium, but I now find myself much less offended by sponsored ads in general. My only remaining caveat (and The Atlantic’s giant screw up) is that the editors need to have no problem associating their good name with the product at hand.
As a paid up Dish-head, I wanted to email in about my total boredom with your series on Buzzfeed. Every time I read one of your pieces, I want to scream the same thing over and over again: If anyone is unhappy with what Buzzfeed (and the like) is doing, don’t bloody read it! No one is holding a gun to your head.
Like many Internet users, I occasionally visit Buzzfeed. There’s the decent item here and there, they do a mean gif round-up and their reactions to big events always give me a minute or two of amusement. As a user of a free site, obviously you expect ads, and if they happen to be a bit more clever than the usual dirge offering pills, penis enhancements and amazing ways to make money, in the grand scheme of things, who gives a damn? No one who visits Buzzfeed is going there for thought-provoking, independent journalism – they do some decent political titbits, but titbits are all they are.
Why the hell are you taking it so seriously? The market will soon sort them out if their advertising strategy turns out to be be a sea of deep, insidious evil. Please drop this silly subject – there’s far more important things going on that we want your insight and input on.