My rather lonely crusade against sponsored content – advertising disguised as journalism – looks lonelier by the day. The desperate need for profit has trumped every other value in the online writing business. That’s a defense, in some respects, of course. If the price of ethics is extinction, it’s too high for business. And maybe this disturbing abandonment of the integrity of journalism will simply be a passing fad, a sign of desperate economic straits, until the market finally sorts itself out, and readers start to wise up to the deception intrinsic the whole thing. I sure hope so.
But that rather optimistic scenario has always missed an important piece of the puzzle, it seems to me. My fear is that once advertising has its foot in the door of journalism proper – i.e. is fully integrated within journalism and increasingly indistinguishable from it – the door will soon be flung wide open and never shut again. Increasingly, companies seeking to advertise will dispense with intermediary sites like Buzzfeed altogether, and create their own sites in which advertising and journalism are completely fused. And how will “journalism” respond then? What happens when Unilever is the host company and the Guardian is merely its branding vehicle? Why not get rid of the journalistic middleman when you can flood the Interwebs with your own propaganda, paid-tweets, and sponsored posts? On the other side of the fence, “news” sites will see the advantages in surrendering more and more to advertising, since the revenues are so much more lucrative than any subscriptions or regular ads could ever be, and as news sites compete with each other for more and more ad dollars. In that market – where there are no journalistic ethics to speak of any more – my bet is that the most craven will win.
Well, here’s a harbinger of sorts: a seemingly journalistic inquiry by Vice into the future of warfare – fused with an ad for a video game, Call Of Duty. New York Times journalists and other serious sources are in the video – but the video is also an ad. Money quote:
In the trailer, which Vice says is only a taste of a longer investigation into private military contractors, Thomas reads a series of alarming statements about the rise of military contractors as grainy shots of gun-toting men scroll in the background. Snippets of interviews with private contractors are played, and for one sequence, Thomas is strapped up with a bulletproof vest and rushed through an apparent simulation of an evacuation mission before the video comes to an end. “The next generation of Call of Duty is coming,” reads the final frame. And apparently, the next generation of branded content isn’t far behind.