Sponsored Content Watch


A reader sends the above screenshot:

Perhaps this has already become the style at other prestigious media outlets, but I think it’s somewhat remarkable that the editors at The New Republic didn’t see fit to tell readers upfront that the article is sponsored content. (I apologize if I’m late to the party on this particular advertorial start on the part of TNR.) There’s no real differences in terms of front style or size with the only real tip-off being the lack of a byline. But I’ve interacted with enough smart people online to know how rarely readers, who aren’t themselves writers in some capacity, actually pay attention to, much less search for, the author to an article.

The sponsored status of the “article” is a little more obvious on the front-page:

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Previously noted examples here of the ever-growing scourge of sponsored content. Update from a reader:

If you think things are weird on the journalism side, try going toward entertainment. New companies are trying deliberately to muddy the waters.

Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

Andrew, could you please stop referring to publishers who sell sponsored content as whores? It’s really offensive to whores.

Update from a reader:

This was meant as a joke, but our culture’s ease with the word “whore” and the ease with which sex workers are shamed is despicable. If you want to show someone is really worthless, say they’re a whore. Like the LGBT community, sex workers are a group whose existence challenges traditional sexual relations. Is the reason they are openly scorned that society feels they choose this, and maybe even that they profit? But even if you think that true (it’s not), we shouldn’t deplore a word that carries so much sexist hate.

Men can be whores just as much as women can. But point taken.

The Whoring Just Keeps Getting Worse

If you think I’m a crank on the surge of sponsored content replacing journalism, take a look at one big media company’s bet on the future:

The new [Yahoo] publications combine original articles and material licensed from other sites, as well as big photos and videos into an endless page of tiles aimed at enticing people to linger. Mixed into that stream is a different kind of advertising — so-called native ads or sponsored posts — which look almost exactly like all the other articles and videos on the page except that they are sponsored by brands like Knorr, Best Buy and Ford Motor. These ads, Yahoo hopes, will attract the attention of more readers and make more money for the company. In some cases, Yahoo editors even help to write that advertising — a blurring of the traditional lines between journalists and the moneymaking side of the business.

If Yahoo wanted to become an advertising or public relations company, I’d have no problem with that. But what they’re doing is deliberately deceiving readers on what is advertising and what is journalism, and using journalism as a cover for a lucrative public relations business. Here’s the industry consensus in a quote from the editor of Yahoo Food:

I think our involvement elevates the advertising. Our ability to bring editorial knowledge and finesse to advertising content makes it better and gives it a point of view.

And in so doing makes it more and more indistinguishable from editorial. That’s also the paradox of one of the recent native ads that got a lot of positive press:

the native ad at the New York Times on female incarceration by Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”. Check it out here. It’s gorgeously produced, vividly presented  – in ways more innovative and arresting in design than the NYT’s own editorial product! Yes, unlike Yahoo or Buzzfeed and the other whoring sites, there are markers that this is not produced by the editors of the paper. But then it gets a bit confusing because it was created by the NYT – by a

newly formed Brand Studio unit, which was built to create native ads for advertisers. The article was written by Melanie Deziel, an editor at the studio who worked in the past at The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. The illustrations are by Otto Steininger, whose work has appeared on the cover of The New Yorker.

So you have a journalist writing ad copy and a New Yorker artist creating visuals for an article that is created by the NYT, but is actually an advertisement. The cumulative effect, if the ads keep improving in quality, have more journalistic input and better graphics, is to make fake journalism less and less distinguishable from, you know, real journalism – journalism informed by an independent writer’s views, rather than paid for by a client.

This decision to merge advertising and editorial was driven by one thing and one thing only: money. As ad rates have dropped, websites have gone back to their sponsors to ask them how high they should jump to get some more love:

Last year, Ms. Mayer met repeatedly with Unilever executives and asked how Yahoo could improve. When she shared her thinking about sponsored content for some new digital lifestyle magazines, Mr. Master said, “We put our hand up and said, ‘We will do that.’ ” Unilever has since expanded its commitment to advertising on Tumblr and Yahoo sites.

Use your magazine to inject corporate propaganda into what appears to be independent journalism and “we will do that.” Quite why any self-respecting editor of journalist would do that is another matter. But self-respect went out a long time ago in this business, didn’t it?

Sponsored Content Watch

A reader points up north:

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:

Earlier this year, the Vancouver Observer reported on a Postmedia presentation that outlined a content strategy that includes several Financial Post “Special Report” sections, with topics to be arranged by Postmedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers [CAPP]. … Add to that the tone of the leaked Postmedia presentation, which is graphically designed to follow the route of a cartoon pipeline (snazzy!) and includes this note from Douglas Kelly, the publisher of the National Post:

From its inception, the National Post has been one of the country’s leading voices on the importance of energy to Canada’s business competitiveness internationally and our economic well being in general. We will work with CAPP to amplify our energy mandate and to be part of the solution to keep Canada competitive in the global marketplace. The National Post will undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”

Huh. You almost get the impression that Postmedia sees itself as being on the same team as CAPP — which is rather disconcerting.

And the beat goes on.

Sponsored Content Watch

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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 NewsThe Atlantic, and the other publications hosting sponsored links are not just hosting advertising for these deceptive sales pitches; they are enabling them.

And the beat goes on.

(Image from Politico)

TPM’s Double Standards For Sponsored Content

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 12.00.30 PMSee that little word above the sponsored content piece, paid for by The Economist 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?

Is “deception” the right word? Over to David Rodnitzky:

The FTC’s defines an action as deceptive:

“If it is likely to mislead consumers who are acting reasonably under the circumstances and if it would be material to their decision to buy or use the product.”

So is an ad that looks like editorial content “likely to mislead”? As far back as 1968, the FTC discussed a newspaper advertisement for a restaurant that “uses the format and general appearance of a news feature . . . [and] purports to give an independent, impartial, and unbiased view,” concluding:

“Since the column, in fact, consists of a series of commercial messages which are paid for by the advertisers, the Commission is of the opinion that it will be necessary to clearly and conspicuously disclose that it is an ad.”

Rodnitzky’s core point is that much of native advertizing is illegal but that the money is so overwhelming, the FTC so toothless, and the ad-gambits so new, that readers can only rely on themselves to sort out fake articles from real ones. Good luck with that. The publishing industry has much too much money riding on this to help you out.

By the way, my recent Harvard lecture on journalism, ethics and sponsored content can now be viewed here.

Et Tu, Josh? Ctd

Ryan Chittum responds to my criticism of TPM’s new advertising strategy:

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”:

Tobacco companies’ products killed 100 million people in the 20th century, most of them after scientists proved they caused mortal diseases. … Journalism was so addicted to tobacco advertising that the press at least sometimes censored itself when covering the cigarette companies. The New Republic, for instance, a few years before Sullivan got there, squashed an investigation on Big Tobacco’s insidious media strategy because Marty Peretz foresaw “massive losses of advertising income.”

Time, also around the same time in the 1980s, deleted anti-tobacco references from an advertorial pushing healthy living, and a spokesman actually said this to the Chicago Tribune:

“Time, as does Newsweek, has a lot of cigarette advertising. Do you carry material that’s insulting to the advertiser?”

And that was when the media was minting money. With the press now in a far weaker position, the temptation to self-edit is surely stronger. That’s potentially a far bigger problem than native advertising, particularly when the latter is well disclosed.

I agree that it’s a big problem, and likely to become much worse. That’s why we highlighted the extraordinary fact that journalists at Time Inc. now report directly to those on the business side seeking ads. Both are awful – and will contribute to a nadir in trust for anything in journalism, if they haven’t already.