Here’s the thing: Native ads are just advertorials by another name, and advertorials have long been published by news organizations of the highest standards, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker. Those “special advertising sections” are the native ads of print, and they’ve been there for decades. … In a perfect world, journalism would be paid for entirely by readers and publications’ interests would align with them and them alone. But while Andrew Sullivan and Consumer Reports can make a go of that, 99.9 percent of journalists and their organizations cannot.
I don’t disagree. But those advertorials were never designed to look as much like the rest of the magazines or newspapers, and were labeled “advertorial” or “advertising”. And they were embedded in physical products where you could directly compare them with the actual copy elsewhere, highlighting their difference. Online, a web page is easily detached from its context (85 percent of Buzzfeed’s pages are viewed with no context from the home-page) and so far more susceptible to being viewed as legitimate editorial, rather than a fake article, especially when the framing is identical to a regular page. Chittum argues that the “much more dangerous aspect of advertising is the self-editing or outright censorship big advertisers can prompt on the news side”:
Every now and again, it’s perhaps worth revisiting the entire definition of journalism. In my view, it is writers and editors attempting to tell the truth about what’s happening in the world to readers every day or more frequently. A journalistic institution that lasts builds a trust between its editors and readers so that no one is in any doubt about the sincerity of the enterprise, its freedom from outside interference, or its integrity as a form of communication.
My concern with “sponsored content” in vast swathes of online media – from the New York Times to Time Inc. and Buzzfeed – is simply that, by deliberately blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial, it must necessarily undermine this integrity and cast a doubt over that trust. It violates the core integrity of any journalistic institution to treat the prose of commercial interests as the equivalent of the prose of editors and writers – or to blur the lines between the two, by presenting commercial speech in extremely similar formats to editorial speech.
Am I being too purist? All I can say is that my position was once held by every journalistic institution you can think of only a few years ago. Back then, advertising was a revenue model that was self-explanatory, clearly differentiated from any article, and if it could in any way be confused with an article would have the word “Advertisement” attached to it. It was also assumed that the editor would know no specifics of the advertiser. The reader of a magazine knew that what appeared in its pages was written entirely by journalists and guided by editors. That is not purism. It is the basic ethical code of journalism as we have known it for decades.
And so we come to the deeply depressing news that Josh Marshall’s TPM has joined the throng. In introducing the series – a completely new step for TPM – Josh didn’t address the obvious glaring issue. Instead he wrote a post that doesn’t sound like him, and in fact reads like a p.r. press release:
Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Idea Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives?
On Friday, Josh responded to some brutally effective takedowns by Henry Farrell (it’s worth reading the entire debate, including the comments where Josh participated). His argument is that these are advertisements and are clearly labeled as such, but include text like an article because, well, er:
Our advertisers are policy focused and thus tend to have more complex arguments. They’re not just selling soap or peanut butter. There’s only so much of those arguments you can fit into a picture box or a video. They want room to make fuller arguments, lengthier descriptions of who they are and what they do, as you would if you were writing an editorial – in text, going into detail.
But they could do all that in a traditional advertisement: in their own font, attached to a real article, in their own color, with their own branding. We’d all know what it is. But this is not what Josh has offered them. He has offered them the appearance of being an article in TPM, and that offer is precisely and solely what makes sponsored content ads worth more than the others. If it were clearly an ad, that w0uld defeat the purpose of the enterprise, which is to blur that difference. So there is something inherently corrupting and unethical about this arrangement.
To quote E.B. White, stating the obvious, when discussing mere sponsorship of an article written by a journalist in Esquire in 1975:
A new low: journalism guru, Jim Romenesko – the kind of guy who once would have trashed this kind of thing – runs a sponsored post from the Koch brothers. Update: A reader points out that Romenesko has been posting sponsored content for nearly a year now.
And then some. On its new app, NYT NOW, there will be nothing but sponsored content supporting it. No actual ads, just corporate propaganda designed to look like the rest of the app:
Paid posts in the news stream will be the only form of ads on The New York Times’ NYT Now app, due to roll out on the App Store on Apr. 2, the company said today… Cartier has signed on as the initial sponsor of NYT Now. Paid Post units and branded content will also begin appearing on the Times’ other mobile apps in the coming months, the Times said… The Times introduced native ad units in January, with Dell, Intel and Goldman Sachs as the initial sponsors. The company hopes native ads will help turn around its declining digital ad revenue, which Times CEO Mark Thompson has pledged to begin growing again in 2014.
In-stream ads in mobile apps are the latest step in this process.
That’s the end, isn’t it? I’m sure the NYT will be better than most in labeling its paid posts, but when the NYT has put its full weight behind blurring the line between editorial and advertizing, what chance that the rest of the industry can resist jumping into the fray? I can’t help but notice that the 100 percent native advertizing on NYT NOW somehow didn’t make it into the NYT’s own story on the changes. I guess I’m not surprised why. The goal of these journalistic enterprises is to keep that kind of thing on the downlow.
A reader elaborates on a recent “Sponsored Content Watch” (a depressingly ongoing feature on the Dish):
What your reader is describing is called a video news release, or VNR. It’s a publicity tactic – basically an advertisement made to look like a news report. In a way, they serve a purpose, as news agencies (especially smaller local stations with limited budgets) can use pieces of them to supplement ongoing reports, the same way newspapers will use information from a press release. The problem with them comes when they’re just aired whole without attribution, as if they’re regular news. Your reader’s note that the segments discussed ended with a “sponsored by” notice is actually an improvement; until about a decade ago, many VNRs aired without any notice at all, such as being produced by a pharmaceutical company or government agency. In 2005, the FCC started cracking down on the practice and said stations could be fined for airing VNRs without attribution, so news programs are a little more cautious about it nowadays (not to say the practice has gone away entirely).
Another points to a more disappointing offender:
Regarding the growth of sponsored content on TV, last month PandoDaily broke the huge story that PBS received $3.5 million from anti-pensions billionaire John Arnold to fund a scare series called “Pension Peril”.
With all the discussion about The Atlantic, Buzzfeed and others blurring the line between journalism and sponsored content, I thought this might add to the discussion. Robert Feder is a longtime Chicago media journalist who has moved from his spot at the major papers in town to the blogosphere. This afternoon, he posted this blog post about the disturbing trend of the local Fox affiliate (and to a lesser extent, WGN TV) is airing segments during their news programming that are paid for by companies looking to promote their products. At the end of segments, a brief “this segment was sponsored by [company name]” is all that tips viewers that what they have already watched is not news and should be viewed with a degree of suspicion.
This, to me, is every bit if not more disgusting than the proliferation of sponsored print content, as it is much less obvious than even the best camouflaged sponsored piece on Buzzfeed. Viewers should not have to watch every segment with suspicion that it is a paid piece in case such a revelation is made at the end of a four minute interview. I assume that if it’s happening here, it’s happening elsewhere, and that both chills and repulses me.
“The honest system of advertising should be but a simple announcement of the offer of goods for the information of those who desire to purchase, in such a manner that they may by seeking find. But in advertising as it now exists, exaggeration is piled on exaggeration, and falsehood is added to falsehood. The world is filled with monstrous lies, and they are thrust upon attention by every possible means. When a man opens his mail in the morning the letter of his friend is buried among these advertising monstrosities. They are thrust under street-doors, and they are offered as you walk the streets. When you read the morning and evening papers, they are spread before you with typographic display; they are placed among the items you desire to read, and they are given false headings, and they begin with decoy paragraphs. … [T]he whole civilized world is placarded with lies, and the moral atmosphere of the world reeks with the foul breath of this monster of antagonistic competition,” - John Wesley Powell, “Competition as a Factor in Human Evolution,” American Anthropologist 1, no. 4 (October 1, 1888): 297–323. Italics mine. Thanks to a reader for flagging. Previous Dish on the early history of sponsored content here.
In Meyers’ view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future’s corner. …
I’m no media purist. Like Meyers, I appreciate that advertising has never stood outside news creation. Without advertising, the daily newspaper, the news broadcast, the news magazine and news on the Web would scarcely exist. One of the things that has prevented advertisers and their clients from controlling the whole ball of wax in the past has been the sheer capital costs of building out a newspaper — its presses, circulation, ad sales, news collection, etc. But the affordability of Web, which has benefited such new entrants as Gawker, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Vox and the rest, will also benefit advertisers and their clients. If the advertising industrial complex masters editorial creation in a future media season — becoming such a big dog that it needs no tail to wag — old news hands might come to regard the era in which gobs of sponsored content propped up ailing news properties as “the good old days.”
“Basic publishing ethics dictate that fake articles be printed in clearly different type fonts and column widths, be enclosed by borderlines and be identified prominently as advertising. By contrast, as native advertising is most often practiced – and as the Federal Trade Commission has very much noticed – publishers allow their advertisers to run content strikingly similar in look and style to the real editorial. The label “advertising” is almost never applied. Instead they use confusing wiggle words like “sponsored content” or, even more obscurely, “from around the web”. The result is not merely deceiving to readers, it bespeaks a conspiracy of deception among publishers, advertisers and their agencies,” – Bob Garfield, at the Guardian, the latest publication to embrace the unethical deception of “native advertizing.”
Much of the media isn’t covering the grotesque transformation of journalism into corporate public relations – well, they’re all in on it, aren’t they? – but the latest example is really rich. The Guardian – that lefty, anti-corporate, “comment-is-free” trans-Atlantic behemoth – is now merging with Unilever to produce “content”. What does that mean exactly? Well, follow the newspeak:
Guardian News and Media has signed a seven-figure deal to provide content about sustainability under the brand of household goods giant Unilever. It is the first deal for the new Guardian Labs division – which describes itself as a “branded content and innovation agency which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences”.
Guardian Labs employ some 133 staff including designers, video producers, writers and strategists who will work with The Guardian’s editorial, marketing and digital development teams.
A “content and innovation” agency. Helping “brands … tell their stories.” This is called public relations, guys. There’s nothing new or innovative about it whatsoever. What’s new is the deliberate attempt to merge this industry with journalism itself and to disguise the difference with bullshit. Smell the ordure:
The Guardian partnership with Unilever is said to be “centred on the shared values of sustainable living and open storytelling”.
Who knew that the giant manufacturer of such products as Axe Body Spray, Vaseline and Ben and Jerry’s has long been committed to “open story-telling,” whatever the fuck that means? Then check this out:
Chipotle has produced a miniseries about factory farming:
Farmed and Dangerous, which premieres on Hulu on Feb. 17, focuses on a fictional industrial agriculture company that devises a money-saving scheme to feed cows petroleum-based animal pellets. Lots of hijinks with exploding cattle and a nefarious PR spokesman ensue. The show exposes issues in the agriculture industry that Chipotle has publicly denounced, such as dependence on fossil fuels and overuse of antibiotics on animals. But instead of hearing about these points from the restaurant directly, viewers will learn about them by laughing at Twin Peaks star Ray Wise and a wide cast of other characters.
Could this be the future of advertising?
This is not advertising, exactly, but it’s not regular video programming either. Daniel Rosenberg, a partner at Piro, calls it “strategic entertainment.” The goal, he says, is “adding value to people’s lives rather than interrupting it with traditional advertising.” …
A reader gives Gawker some due regarding their partnership with Newcastle Ale:
I just wanted to provide this insight in case no one else has. I use Adblock Plus in my Firefox browser. When I clicked through to the Gawker post from your feed, the very first word and other words were missing from the body text – every instance of “Newcastle.” I toggled off ADP for just that page, and voila, they appeared.
I’ve used ADP for years and have enjoyed a pretty damn clean browsing experience. It’s kept me from getting too annoyed at online ads in general. But I wouldn’t have assumed it would protect my delicate sensibilities from innovative trickery such as paid content.
So, tip of the hat to Gawker. They instituted some tagging that allowed the brand they’re advertising to be made invisible if the smart visitor has taken measures to be shielded from ads. I think that’s rather ethical and deserves recognition.
For the record, the Dish has praised Newcastle Ale for its creative ads – when they are not enmeshed with editorial copy. We love ads – especially creative ones. We’ve had a Cool Ad Watch on this site for years. And yes, Gawker deserves props for tagging sponsored content as advertising. My concern is with the deceptive attempt to disguise ads as editorial – undermining the credibility of journalism, and conflating copy-writing with writing, for short-term cash at the expense of long-term viability. Another reader zooms out:
While I generally agree with you on the problem of native advertising, I have more confidence than you have that the audience can detect and separate advertising from journalism and commentary. Remember: native advertising has been around for a long, long, time. For example: