“In the case of Frank Conroy’s ‘essay,’ Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair,” – David Foster Wallace, eighteen years ago, on “sponsored content.”
Back then, an essay sponsored by a cruise line was a rare excrescence. But this excrescence is now the business model for almost all online journalism. It is the business model for the New York Times!