Your watchful eye on the metastasizing world of advertorials and so-called “native ads” is an essential counterpoint to what’s becoming an alarming trend, even outside of US borders. Case in point: a series of unmarked oil industry advertorials that recently made it to print in newspapers owned by Canada’s right-leaning Postmedia. Hawk-eyed readers were able to connect the dots and alerted Advertising Standards Canada (whose webpage is emblazoned with the motto “Truth in Advertising Matters”). After a review, the organization decided not to issue a ruling.
An increasingly desperate oil sands industry is pulling out all the stops to curry public favour with Keystone on wobbly ground and the Northern Gateway pipeline being met with fierce public opposition. It’s discouraging to find that all too many media organizations are willing to undermine the tireless work of their reporters with deceptive advertising practices.
A Canadian economist, Robyn Allan, tried to write a rebuttal to a piece about the oil industry that she read in a Postmedia newspaper:
[She] took issue with the economic claim [that Canada is losing $50-million a day due to limited export markets]. When she submitted an opinion piece in response, she was informed it couldn’t be run because the article she was responding to was actually a paid advertisement.
It wasn’t labeled as such; yet, as our reader noted, Advertising Standards Canada declined to censure Postmedia, which owns nearly every broadsheet daily in the country. Then it happened again – another paid pro-oil-industry piece not labeled as such. It gets better:
Alex Mayyasi wonders why that those “recommended links” you see appended to so many stories on legitimate news sites seem to have gotten a pass in the sponsored-content debate:
On one hand, that might be understandable. Taboola links don’t seem nearly as deceptive as a full article. Over email, Taboola CEO Adam Singolda pointed out that companies like Facebook and Google host links or advertisements from Moneynews and the Aftershock Survival Summit. This author’s daily e-mail from The New York Times includes ads for financial products and mortgage sites just as scammy. Is Taboola sponsored content any different from trashy ads?
But in the case of scammy ads, the difference between an ad and a sponsored link is crucial. The illusion of journalistic integrity provided by the news publishers that host these “headlines” is key to the sale of these useless financial products, scam diet pills, and shady mortgage deals. “With Outbrain Amplify,” Outbrain tells customers, “links to your content appear as recommendations on the web’s largest content publishers including sites like Wall Street Journal, Reuters & People.com.” Bloomberg News, The Atlantic, and the other publications hosting sponsored links are not just hosting advertising for these deceptive sales pitches; they are enabling them.
See that little word above the sponsored content piece, paid for by TheEconomist and written by the editors? It’s called “Advertisement.” And good for Josh for using that word in that context. No one’s confused; the labeling is very clear; and TPM gets some revenue. So why do you think this standard is not applied to Phrma? It couldn’t be because they pay extra for the chance of deceiving readers, could it?
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”:
I have a feeling this might be a bit of a tough sell for you, but I’m going to take a shot anyway. Is this really about craven people making immoral decisions? It seems to me that what’s going on is that market conditions are pushing journalists to sponsored content. I’m sure there’s a spectrum of feelings about the morality of sponsored content – that some folks are more ok with it than others. But I’m certain lots of people at the very institutions you’re criticizing feel more or less as you do.
Companies that do sponsored content aren’t doing it to fatten an already-wide profit margin. It’s not about buying yachts and champagne. Here’s the problem: the market has moved into a place in which lots of publications have to use sponsored content in order to survive. I don’t know, but I have to think that choices are being made between firing people and taking the sponsored content.
This is the thing about markets. No one has any control over them. And sometimes, the numbers just don’t line up. And it’s like we have this panglossian idea that if the market says it, it’s for the best. Sometimes it’s not. Sponsored content is a pure product of the market, and it sucks. I guess I’d urge you to try to be a little bit more compassionate about the pressures your colleagues face, even as you speak out against the trend. And also to please try to continue to hold the line yourself, if you can.
This is an absolutely fair point. In my defense, I’ve tried not to cast absolute moral aspersions on those running fake articles for money. It’s possible for well-intentioned people to be swimming in market forces they have no option but to co-opt. I doubt Jill Abramson is thrilled to be doing what the NYT is doing with sponsored content. But Mark Thompson has over-ruled her, and for understandable reasons. Yes, of course, the media economy is currently brutal. Serious journalism used to be subsidized by many things – classifieds, comics, and sports coverage bundled in with foreign policy; lucrative advertising in scarce paper sources, etc – that have disappeared entirely. Something has to replace them for journalism to survive this technological onslaught. At the Dish, we do not have the resources (yet) to invest in the kind of deep reporting that requires big budgets that require big revenue. I get that. I also get the fact that some people are doing their best to manage this balancing act while not throwing out every ethical guideline we ever had in this business.
But it is still a terrible precedent to attempt to pass off ad copy as editorial with phony words and crafty design. Go check out TPM’s home-page today. A third of it is taken up with a huge chunk of space for a fake article by Phrma above the fold; a Phrma ad below it; and a big section on the side as a vehicle for Phrma’s propaganda, with some token TPM copy and AP stories as filler. At some point, you might be forgiven for wondering where TPM’s coverage ends and where Phrma’s propaganda begins. As I said at Buzzfeed more than a year ago, there is a real danger that you could be destroying the village in order to save it.
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.