A History Of Sponsored Content

The always-worth-reading Jack Shafer digs up the long history of passing off advertizing as editorial:

Advertisements masquerading as editorial copy date back at least to the late 19th century, when they were called “reading notices,” according to the Encyclopedia of American Journalism. Publishers encouraged the placement of reading notices, which placed brand and company names in news stories without any disclaimers, because it was more profitable than conventional advertisements.

And the critics then sound uncannily like this blog today:

In his memoirs, Washington Gladden wrote about quitting his job as a reporter at the New York Independent in 1874 because he could not convince the paper to stop publishing reading notices and publisher’s notices that looked like news stories. “They seem to Atlantic-Sponsorbe essentially evil, and a weakness to the paper,” Gladden wrote. “My scruple may be a foolish one, but I cannot overcome it.” (Hat tips to Prof. Ronald R. Rodgers for this and several other historical pointers.) Renowned journalist Charles A. Dana despised the form, too, writing in 1895, “Let every advertisement appear as an advertisement; no sailing under false colors.” His sentiment was shared by many colleagues, including Editor and Publisher, which editorialized against them, and Adolph S. Ochs, owner of the New York Times. Idealistic publisher E.W. Scripps, who founded an ad-free newspaper in Chicago in 1911, thought avoiding unlabeled reading notices made “good business sense.”

But reading notices were considered so effective that one 1908 book on advertising devoted an entire chapter to “Puffs, Reading Notices, Want Advertisements, Etc.” The key to writing a good reading notice, author Albert E. Edgar advised, was duplicity. “A reading notice of any kind has a certain amount of value because the public reads them as matters of news and not as items of advertising.”

The core business model of sponsored content is lying to readers in order to whore out more completely to advertizers. Call that what you will – “advanced advertorial techniques” or “partners” – the better the lie the more effective the ad. The small question is whether media sites whose fundamental goal is deceiving readers eventually render themselves obsolete. As the WSJ’s Gerard Baker puts it:

An advertiser wants to advertise in The Wall Street Journal to be seen and to be associated with a brand like The Wall Street Journal, or The Financial Times or Bloomberg, because those news organizations are respected. If [advertisers] manipulate the digital or print operations of those news organizations, it makes the reader confused as to what is news and what is advertising, and the reader’s trust, the very reason that those advertisers want to advertise in those news organizations, goes away.

Nate Silver gives it eighteen months, tops. I suspect that’s optimistic. By which time no one may be able to tell the difference between an ad and a piece.