Sponsored Content Helps Brands, Hurts Publishers

At some point, the shoe was always going to drop on the scam that is “sponsored content” or “native advertising” or “enhanced advertorial techniques” or whatever bullshit word the industry needs to disguise its own ethical collapse. So here’s the breaking news: when you whore out your editorial pages to advertisers, and do your best to merge your own editorial copy with advertising and p.r., readers think less of you, stop trusting you and start suspecting the ethics and source of everything you publish.

Since this truth is hard to accept when your paycheck is at stake, a study was required to discover the bleeding obvious. The IAB/Edelman report questioned 5,000 consumers of news of various kinds. Here’s their bottom line:

The study shows that media companies carry a far higher risk to their reputation and value perception in allowing native advertising than their brand advertisers. However, native advertising on business news, and entertainment news sites, was less problematic than on general news sites. In addition, six out of 10 people visiting general news sites said it was not clear if a brand had paid for the content.

When 60 percent of readers don’t know if the stuff they’re reading is paid for by advertisers or is, you know, what used to be called journalism, we have pretty solid objective proof of the deception inherent in the practice. More to the point, 73 percent of readers say that native advertising adds no value to general news sites. So please spare me the somewhat creepy idea that these exercises in propaganda actually enhance the reader experience. The readers don’t think so.

The study also reveals the ratchet effect of this deal with the devil. Advertisers get a real boost by leeching off the accumulated trust of a publication like, say, Forbes or Buzzfeed, or the Atlantic. But the more sponsored content fills those pages, the less readers trust them. And so the value to advertisers declines as the trust in various publications declines. In this slow circling of the ethical drain, everyone loses, but the advertisers at least get some bang for their buck. The news sites?

Integrity is a really tough thing to get back, isn’t it?