Below are our posts covering the rise of “sponsored content” at sites like the Atlantic and Buzzfeed. The coverage began in response to a Scientology advertorial featured by the Atlantic in January 2013, then a month later the focus shifted to Buzzfeed and other examples across the web (you can skip directly to that section here).
The Atlantic‘s Resort To Advertorials
Well, it seems pretty clear where the editorial staff stands. Goldblog touts Lawrence Wright’s new book on the subject (which, if it is anything like as good as his past work, will indeed be a must-read); Fallows tweets diplomatically but obviously with some concern. To its credit, the magazine pulled the pro-scientology propaganda advertorial pronto (if you call 11 hours pronto). Eric Wemple has a good summary here. My immediate thought was that this was overblown, and then I saw the sheer extent of the piece:
Look, these are extremely tough days for magazines and what David Bradley and Justin Smith have done to resurrect this pillar of American letters is quite something: a tour de force financially. James Bennet’s editorship has been a model for others. But advertorials in the Atlantic? For cults? What I’d like to know is how extensive the use of advertorials now is at my former beloved home. Maybe this was a one-off, quickly ended. Or maybe it wasn’t. But the integrity of a great magazine needs defending. Wemple ominously notes from his reporting:
Natalie Raabe, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic, says that such “native ads” are making their way onto TheAtlantic.com on a “regular basis,” though figures weren’t immediately available. Native ads are critical to The Atlantic’s livelihood. They are one element of digital advertising revenue, which in 2012 accounted for a striking 59 percent of the brand’s overall advertising revenue haul. Unclear just how much of the digital advertising revenue stems from sponsor content. We’re working on that.
The heart sinks.
“Enhanced Advertorial Techniques”
I have to confess that the term “native ads” was new to me as I read the Atlantic’s spokesperson, Natalie Raab, explain the magazine’s propaganda page for Scientology – right next to journalists of the highest integrity, from TNC to Fallows. You might be too. Here’s what I found out about them from one man who played a part in coining the term last year:
“a form of media that’s built into the actual visual design and where the ads are part of the content.”
A little more Googling and I found this:
Launched three years ago, Native Solutions creates ad programs that have the look and feel of The Atlantic’s content. The goal: help brands create and distribute engaging content by making the ads linkable, sharable and discoverable. For example, take a look at the work it did with Porsche on the image-heavy sponsored post, “Where Design Meets Technology,” which was shared 139 times on Facebook and 80 times on Twitter. The Native Solutions programs has been so successful that it now accounts for half of digital ad revenue, which is up over 50 percent so far this year.
So you can see how letting advertizers drive content is lucrative and expanding. The Atlantic isn’t alone. Buzzfeed, Gawker, Forbes and HuffPo are all in the game – because online banner ads really are dead. But I can’t help but feel troubled by this development:
Like BuzzFeed, [Jay] Lauf has a 15-person creative team that helps brands create content and develop distribution strategies… Fidelity Investments is working with The Atlantic to find what Fidelity’s best assets are to tell its story. Fidelity, which uses its own in-house creative services team to create content, has a couple of campaigns on The Atlantic — one’s a video and accompanying infographic, the other is a series of pictures. Each is a branding mechanism, tying back to the financial company’s “Thinking Big” campaign.
Jay Lauf, again, is a great guy and a business genius. But when a magazine is actively working with an advertizer to “create content” that has “the look and feel of The Atlantic’s content” … well, all I can say is that if that is the future of online journalism, we should all be alarmed.
The Atlantic‘s Resort To Advertorials, Ctd
A reader writes:
The worst part of this? They were moderating the comments. You can make a comment on any post from Jeffrey Goldberg or Ta Nehisi Coates and it would go through. If you put something vile in there, it would go through until moderated after the fact. The Scientology advertorial, however, blocked all posts until they were approved. This means that they gave Scientology veto power over how people respond to them, which they do not give to anyone else. As a result, the comments were almost entirely glowing about Scientology.
The Atlantic Apologizes
In a classy way - and they are reviewing the entire strategy. That’s great – and the swiftness and clarity of their apology does indeed, as my old friend TNC notes, show that their integrity endures. That matters to me because I deeply love the institution and respect its writers. But the more I have read about new advertizing strategies online the more relieved I am that we are trying – and trying is the best I can say so far – to stay out of this advertizing business.
Obviously sponsored content from Scientologists, with Atlantic employees systematically removing negative comments, is self-evidently awful. But I have to say I tend to agree with Pareene: why is the Church of Scientology more objectionable as “sponsored content” than, say, Shell or Intel or IBM? Here’s a video entirely provided by Shell:
This is corporate propaganda, not journalism. Yes, it is identified as such – but on the video page, actual journalism by brilliant writers like Alexis Madrigal is interspersed with corporate-funded propaganda. You can easily mistake one for the other.
Here’s another screen shot that troubles me:
The author of the second article is one Martin Duggan. What’s his journalism background?
Martin Duggan is the vice president of market strategy, responsible for driving strategic efforts across IBM’s Cúram product portfolio and evaluating new markets. He has 20 years of social enterprise experience working in a variety of delivery, strategy development, and consulting roles and is viewed as a social services thought leader around the globe.
On the same page, we have two other ads by IBM, an infographic by IBM, two more stories written by IBM, three links to IBM pages, and one IBM video. It’s made legit by a tiny box up top, which you have to roll over to find out that:
Sponsor content is created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.
Did IBM also provide the art? Then I went to Quartz, the company’s new global business site. Two out of the first ten pieces I saw on the main-page last night were written by corporations, Chevron and Cadillac, presumably in collaboration with the Atlantic. (The Cadillac has now gone, replaced by another identical Chevron “piece”.) I’d like to know as a subscriber and former senior editor who exactly on staff helped write those ads, and how their writing careers are different than that of regular journalists. Jay Lauf, for whom I have immense respect, said this about the strategy of “native ads” – or what I prefer to call enhanced advertorial techniques:
“A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more. It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.”
Read this piece and see if you agree.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that readers do not expect great magazines to be artfully eliding the distinction between editorial and advertorial with boosterish ad campaigns from oil companies. Usually, those advertorials are in very separate sections in magazines – “Sponsored By The Government Of Dubai” or something – but integrating them in almost exactly the same type and in exactly the same format as journalism is not that.
I can understand companies sponsoring real journalism in inventive, dynamic, interactive ways. Magazines need advertizing to survive. I also understand how banner ads are useless for many big companies. I also realize that keeping the Atlantic alive requires herculean efforts in this tough climate. But please, please, please remember that the most important thing you have at the Atlantic is your core integrity as one of the great American magazines. I see no evidence the editorial staff has compromised that in any way and regard their writers and editors as role-models as well as journalists and friends. But there comes a time when the business side of a magazine has to be reminded that a magazine can very gradually lose its integrity in incremental, well-meant steps that nonetheless lead down a hill you do not want to descend. I know they are principled and honorable people there; and I know they understand this. But please know that this stuff makes an Atlantic readergrieve.
Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad
Since I’m going to be discussing forms of new media revenue with Friend of the Dish, Ben Smith, later today, I though it might be worth noting some aspects of Buzzfeed’s innovative model, i.e. “sponsored content” or “native advertizing”. I should start by saying I’m not trying to criticize anyone who’s trying to make new media work financially. We don’t know what works and there are various options. But Buzzfeed’s model is a hot topic – as was the Atlantic‘s resort to “native advertizing” in the Scientology fuck-up.
So let’s take a specific example which caught my eye the other day. Here is Buzzfeed”s post on Sony’s Playstation 4 posted yesterday at 8.07 pm. Despite being billed as “The Only Post You Need To Read About The PlayStation 4,” it was actually preceded by this post on Buzzfeed the day before about the same event, titled “11 Things You Didn’t Know About PlayStation”. The difference is that the February 19 post was “sponsored” by PlayStation and the February 20 one was written by two staffers with by-lines. Go check them both out and see the differences (an off-white background and acknowledgment of the sponsor) and the similarities (in form, structure and tone, basically identical).
To my eye, the two are so similar in form and content, I have a few questions to ask of Ben later today: were the people who wrote the first Sony-sponsored post employed by Buzzfeed or Sony? Or was it a team effort? If it was a team effort, why no Buzzfeed by-lines? Or did the same people write both the promotional copy and the journalistic copy?
Now go a little deeper on the sponsored page about the PlayStation 4. Here’s a screen shot of what you see on the side:
Were these sponsored or real?
The second post was put up on the same day as the first Sony-sponsored post, with the classic Buzzfeed headline: “10 Awesome Downloadable Games You May Have Missed”. But all of the posts in the sidebar above were sponsored by Sony, even though, as you can see, they are not distinguished as such. Once you slip into the advertorial vortex at Buzzfeed, everything that is advertizing appears as non-advertizing. Just keep clicking. When you’re on Buzzfeed proper (if that’s the right term), the sponsored posts are delineated, ethically, as I noted above, by an off-white color background that subtly makes them different and an acknowledgment of the sponsor.
So I don’t see an ethical line being definitively crossed here – just deliberately left very fuzzy. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but one core ethical rule I thought we had to follow in journalism was the church-state divide between editorial and advertizing. But as journalism has gotten much more desperate for any kind of revenue and since banner ads have faded, this divide has narrowed and narrowed. The “sponsored content” model is designed to obscure the old line as much as possible (while staying thisclose to the right side of the ethical boundary). It’s more like product placement in a movie – except movies are not journalism.
So my core worry is: who writes and composes these sponsored posts? Are they done in collaboration with Sony? Or does Sony do it all? Are any of the sponsored post writers also writing regular posts? If they are, what credibility does Buzzfeed have when actually reviewing PlayStation 4? By the way, here’s the end of their review:
And so we get a tease for what might well be a future Sony-sponsored post. I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?
The debate at Buzzfeed really did become quite unusually passionate. I guess my taking on “native advertizing” and “sponsored content” in the belly of the company that has pioneered and thrived off them was a little provocative. But it was also huge fun and aired what I think we all could agree were salient issues that merit more discussion. I’ll be posting something tomorrow.
But meanwhile it behooves me to note that
after before* my earlier post, Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein followed up with a stringent review of the PlayStation4, which you can read here. It’s not an ad. It’s a piece of thoughtful criticism. Which is a distinction I think Buzzfeed should begin to emphasize more (ever thought of adding the simple word “Advertisement” atop an advertisement that deliberately looks like the rest of the product?), or risk the impression that their “new” form of advertizing is actually just the oldest profession in the world.
*Technically Bernstein’s review went up a mere five minutes before my post, according to the timestamps.
A tour of tweets from last night’s debate:
— Dan Stewart (@thatdanstewart) February 21, 2013
— Rubina Madan Fillion (@rubinafillion) February 21, 2013
— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) February 21, 2013
— Rubina Madan Fillion (@rubinafillion) February 21, 2013
— Cyborg (@heavenrants) February 22, 2013
Grieving, propaganda, blood money. All words used in the last 5 minutes of #smwsullyfeed
— Ashley McCollum (@McCollumAshley) February 22, 2013
@mattzeitlin I was using Lehrer in the negative sense btw. Sully and Ben basically screamed at each other the whole time and I watched
— Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) February 22, 2013
Ten Great Sully/Smith Disagreements [SPONSORED POST] #smwSullyFeed
— Alex Fitzpatrick (@AlexJamesFitz) February 22, 2013
@sullydish: Gotta say a cheesy thing. I feel so lucky to work at a place where the EIC will engage in a critical public discussion like that
— Emily Fleischaker (@emofly) February 22, 2013
— Jessica Hullinger (@JessHullinger) February 22, 2013
— Amanda Lucci (@alucci) February 22, 2013
This panel is actually an elaborate advertorial for Sony. #smwSullyFeed
— Marisa Kabas (@MarisaKabas) February 21, 2013
Quotes For The Day
“In this case, we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand … To be clear, our decision to pull the campaign should not be interpreted as passing judgment on the advertiser [the Church of Scientology] as an organization. Where I believe we erred was in the execution of the campaign … One important note for everyone: casting blame on any group or any individual is both unfair and simply not what we do at The Atlantic. And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together,” – Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic.
“That ad was a mistake in both concept and execution. I am saying all of this as a loyal and long-time Atlantic employee but as an observer of rather than participant in this recent drama. (That is, I had nothing to do with any part of this: the origin of the ad, the decision to pull it, or the drafting of this statement,)” – Jim Fallows.
I’ll have more to say later on the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model of “sponsored content” which blew up the room at Buzzfeed last night. But here’s something worth clarifying.
There’s no reason to believe that the editors and editorial writers at these sites are involved in the sponsored content of their respective joints. The editorial writers are not the sponsored content writers. Jim Fallows would no more have written the ad copy for the Church of Scientology than make a guest appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The Buzzfeed review of PlayStation 4 – though jumbled next to sponsored content for PlayStation 4 – was written in obvious good faith, as I noted last night. In other words, I am not accusing journalists at those institutions of anything unethical.
I am accusing those institutions of pushing as far up to the line between advertorial and editorial as can be even remotely ethically justified. I am accusing them of now hiring writers for two different purposes: writing journalism and writing ad copy. Before things got this desperate/opportunistic, the idea of a magazine hiring writers to craft their clients’ ads rather than, you know, do journalism, would have been unimaginable. A magazine was not an ad agency. But the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model is to be both a journalism site and an ad agency. You can see the reason for the excitement. We can now write purely for corporate clients and that will pay for us to do the rest. And so a CEO at Chevron gets a by-line at the magazine that once gave us Twain and Thoreau.
More to the point, when an ad page is designed not even to be seen much on the site’s homepage – where the color shading helps maintain the distinction between ads and edit – and is deliberately purposed to be viral, to pop up alone on your screen with “Buzzfeed” at the top of the page and a layout identical to Buzzfeed’s, the deliberate attempt to deceive readers is impossible to miss.
Am I thinking readers are too dumb to notice the by-line? Aren’t they more sophisticated than that? No and yes, they’re sophisticated, but not the way an industry insider is. I’m merely noting that – to the eternal mortification of writers and reporters – readers don’t really care or notice whose by-line it is in a magazine or newspaper or website. They can easily overlook them. The name Buzzfeed is exponentially larger on any single advertorial than the actual sponsor’s. If you get a single post on Ten Coolest Things On The Planet, and it’s as good or as funny as anything else on Buzzfeed, and is on Buzzfeed, and looks just like everything else on Buzzfeed, be careful to note the small print where it tells you you are reading propaganda from Halls. That’s their fig leaf.
They need a bigger, clearer one. Because they’re pulling a Britney right now.
Non-Sponsored Content Of The Day
Not brought to you by Sony:
The Atlantic’s New “Sponsor Content” Guidelines
Jim Fallows helpfully unpacks the two quotes I put up yesterday and argues the full chronology of them does not imply some big internal disagreement at the magazine. I’m delighted to say that the Atlantic has devised a new post-Scientology policy with regard to “native advertizing”, “sponsor content,” “enhanced communication techniques”, or whatever newspeak is used in creating confusing advertorials, designed to look like Atlantic articles, as a way to bring in more corporate income. Here it is, in full. Below is the critical section dealing with “Sponsor Content” or, as I think I’ll call them “enhanced advertorial techniques”:
SPONSOR CONTENT GUIDELINES
The guidelines in the following section shall apply to all Sponsor Content served by or appearing in the print and digital publications of The Atlantic, including ads purchased under AAAA/IAB Standard Terms and Conditions. (These are in addition to the general guidelines for advertising content that appear above, which apply to Sponsor Content as well.)
Sponsor Content is content created by or expressly on behalf of advertisers in conjunction with The Atlantic’s marketing team (“Atlantic Marketing”). The Atlantic allows Sponsor Content in two forms: (1) Content produced by Atlantic Marketing on behalf of its advertising partners and (2) Content produced by advertisers.
As with all advertising, Sponsor Content ultimately reflects the views and choices of the advertiser—not of The Atlantic or its editors. Accordingly, The Atlantic will prominently display the following disclaimer on all Sponsor Content: ‘SPONSOR CONTENT.’ The Atlantic will additionally include the following disclaimer on all Sponsor Content: ‘This article is written by or on behalf of our Sponsor and not by The Atlantic’s editorial staff.’ The Atlantic may additionally include, in certain areas and platforms, further explanation defining Sponsor Content to Atlantic readers. In addition, The Atlantic will ensure the treatment and design of Advertising and Sponsor Content is clearly differentiated from its editorial content.
The Atlantic does not require that Sponsor Content steer clear of controversy. Indeed, we expect that Sponsor Content, like our own editorial content, will sometimes address contested issues and will be written with a distinct point of view. That said, even with the caveat that Sponsor Content reflects the views of an advertiser and not of The Atlantic or its editors, The Atlantic will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.
As with all advertising, and consistent with the foregoing General Advertising Guidelines, The Atlantic may reject or remove any Sponsor Content at any time that contains false, deceptive, potentially misleading, or illegal content; is inconsistent with or may tend to bring disparagement, harm to reputation, or other damage to The Atlantic’s brand.
The Atlantic may in its sole discretion enable readers to comment on Sponsor Content on The Atlantic’s sites. If comment functionality is enabled on Sponsor Content, the sponsor will not have any role in moderating such comments. The only moderation of such comments will be performed by Atlantic employees who implement The Atlantic’s generally applicable Terms and Conditions — which prohibit spam, obscenity, hate speech, and similar content—elsewhere on the site.
I’m going to put this document out there before commenting. I have some issues with it – but it does seem at least to recognize a real problem, whereas Buzzfeed thinks that the corrupting bugs here are exciting new features. That may be because Buzzfeed understands itself more as an entertainment site – and its journalism and reporting are relatively new. But so far as I can tell, the dubious ethics of this exercize haven’t even seemed to cross their minds. “Andrew,” as one of my Buzzfeed hosts told me, “you have a lot to learn from us.” Obviously, I do. Consider me on a learning curve. And what I learn I intend to pass on to Dish readers, so you can also get a better idea of how to distinguish journalism from corporate propaganda online.
Non-Sponsored Quote For The Day
“Here’s a little story that might shed some light on this. Several years ago, a friend of mine came over and noticed a three-ring binder sitting on my desk. It was full of stories clipped from the LA Times. “Why did you save these?” he asked. I told him to take a closer look. “Do you notice anything similar about them?”
Nope. Finally I pointed at the bylines. They were all by me, written when I interned at the Times during college.
The moral of the story is that people who don’t inhale news simply don’t notice bylines. They’re practically invisible. It’s possible this is different at BuzzFeed, where reporters develop a loyal following, but I doubt it. I’ll bet 90 percent of their readers never even notice their bylines.
And I’m pretty certain the folks at BuzzFeed know this perfectly well. They do everything they can to make advertising look staff-written, including in tone, style, and format, but leave themselves an out by putting corporate bylines on the ads and pretending that everyone will notice them. Hey, it says Sony Entertainment Network at the top! What more do you want? I imagine this is a glimpse of our future.
You have been warned,” – Kevin Drum. We sure have been.
Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad, Ctd
Derek Thompson, moderator of last week’s throwdown, sounds off:
I wish both sides conceded one final point to the other. I wish Ben conceded that BuzzFeed advertorials are intimate mimics of BuzzFeed articles — it’s not unreasonable to be confused once or twice — and it creates a tension with transparency. BuzzFeed is trying to make ads that are as charming and delightful as articles, but the more clearly they say WARNING THIS IS A WEB ADVERTISEMENT, the more likely people are to ignore their charming delights, because we have been taught to ignore all Web ads. I wish Andrew had paused in his fiery attack on advertorials and BuzzFeed to acknowledge something simple: Advertising does a good thing in the world. It pays great journalists to find and tell the truth. It’s a tradition worth preserving through both experimentation and severe transparency.
I thought I did say that at one point. Advertizing has long been an essential revenue source for journalism, and I am a big fan of it. The Dish has run a “Cool Ad Watch” for years, we’ve been paid in the past by media institutions that get a lot of money through ads, and I sure haven’t ruled out having them in the future, if a subscription-only model cannot get us enough revenue to roughly maintain the budget we had last year at the Beast.
My issue is with advertizing that is crafted in-house by the publication for clients and that is designed to look almost exactly like a regular editorial page and nowhere has the word “advertisement” on it to separate it from editorial copy. I notice that such ethical clarity is still not considered even at the Atlantic.
You can smell the bullshit a mile away. The very phrases – “sponsored content”, “native advertizing” – are as accurate as “enhanced interrogation.” It’s either an advertisement or your media company is producing content. Creating editorial content for advertizers for money, rather than for readers for its own sake, is a major shift in this industry. There is an obvious solution, as Derek suggests. It is to make the advertorials look more different from editorial than they now do and slap a clear word ADVERTISEMENT on top of it.
If that ethical labeling ruins your business model, it’s proof that your business model isn’t ethical. Right? Or am I missing something?
Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad, Ctd
A reader writes:
I think your strong aversion to the sponsored content model is due to two factors: 1) your profession 2) your generation. To someone like me (I’m 27), there isn’t much of a difference between ads and content. In both categories, some are worth consuming and some aren’t. I’m just as likely to go to youtube to seek out a commercial I like as I am to search for a music video. I read that PS4 post without realizing it was an ad but when I found it was (through the Dish) I wasn’t offended and I didn’t feel duped.
Part of the reason is that I don’t see Buzzfeed as a site that operates within the confines of traditional “journalism” and I don’t think they’ve ever tried to position themselves that way. I think Ben Smith’s Buzzfeed Politics sort of exists as a separate piece of Buzzfeed and should have stricter rules for sponsored content, because while the format is slightly different, that part of the site is clearly committed to real, traditional journalism. The main Buzzfeed site is not, and that’s where the PS4 post came out.
Most of the content is those silly scroll down photo-essays, which are a great way to waste 3 minutes. I don’t expect those posts to follow the traditional rules of journalism, because they’re not traditional journalism.
Making money on the web means we’re seeing new models evolve. The Dish is one model, the Atlantic is another and Buzzfeed is too. Buzzfeed is just really good at making content for the ADD types like me who sometimes just want to read something entertaining for 3 minutes.
Ten years ago, I would have been incensed that Buzzfeed would have approached the advertisement /content line the way they have, but at that time, consumers were still expecting to pay for content. Now, I’m much more open to alternative forms of revenue generation because we, the consumer, have broken the pact.
The Buzzfeed Model – From The Horse’s Mouth
Here’s some real clarity on the concept of “sponsored content” or “native advertizing”. It’s from Buzzfeed’s own presentation last week at a media conference by Jeff Greenspan and Mike Lacher. A key section is around the 3:40 moment where they explain how they take an advertizing campaign like the Mini’s – “Not Normal” – and then, instead of running a banner ad on those lines, they create a Buzzfeed page on “10 Not Normal Things That Actually Exist.” Here’s how the presenter(s) explains this:
This is an example of our editorial content … so then the thing we work on is sort of how to make branded content sort of like fit alongside this editorial content … there are no banner ads at Buzzfeed at all. We all have content that feels like editorial. We do not trick anyone into thinking this is an ad … If you go to the post, there are two places where the client’s name is listed in the by-line and in the text …
Later in the clip, we get even more honesty:
I’m sure there are brands who would love a headline to be 23 great things you can find at Ikea – not … I know lots of brands that would love their names in a headline but then that screams of an ad. So we have to explain to them that in order to get the results they want is to act like editorial content, act like you’re in the space that you’re in.
Here’s the dialogue between me, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson and Ben Smith last week:
BEN: I could live with a new word because I think advertorial — to me what that means is like something they paid – usually a quite low quality piece of propaganda that people are tricked into reading because it looks exactly like editorial content – but I actually think though that that’s – like our trick, and the trick that the business side here is attempting to pull of is to produce great content for people … who know our ads and like [them].
ANDREW: So the content is ads – that’s what you’re saying?
BEN: I look at it as great…
ANDREW: So what distinguishes that content from your content?
BEN: Only the label, only the, only the clarity of the label
DEREK: The label makes it..
ANDREW: But you don’t have “advertisement” at the top of it
DEREK: But if they did?
ANDREW: It would help
Will they do that? It would tell us a lot.
Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad, Ctd
Back in July, Chris Dixon passed along an email BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti sent to the company’s investors detailing their strategy:
We care about the experience of people who read BuzzFeed and we don’t try to trick them for short term gain. This approach is surprisingly rare.
How does this matter in practice? First of all, we don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions. Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!
For the same reason, we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those “frictionless sharing” apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.
Instead, we focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term is good for readers and good for business.
He goes on:
A couple years ago, we were trying unsuccessfully to sell social advertising to a market that only wanted to buy banners but things have changed dramatically since then. Now many agencies and brands are refusing to buy banners, companies that rely on traditional display units are suffering, and budgets are shifting rapidly to social advertising. One of our board members, who was initially skeptical of our decision to not run banners, recently said that “social advertising will be the biggest media business since cable television.” Times have changed.
Now we are leading the market, which is a huge opportunity, but it was pure luck that a social advertising market even exists for us to lead. It’s like we happened to start surfing a few minutes before a great wave rolled in. Or we built a locomotive and a few days later the train tracks got built. We were obsessed with social content and ads before anyone else cared and it was extremely lucky that the world shifted toward us when it did. The question now is how well we capitalize on our good fortune.
Some companies only care about journalism and as a result the people focusing on lighter editorial fare or advertising are second class citizens. Some companies only care about traffic which creates an environment where good journalists can’t take the time to talk to sources or do substantive work. Some companies only care about ad revenue and actually force editors to create new sections or content just because brands want to sponsor it.
People don’t do good work when they feel like losers and are second class citizens within their own company. Fortunately we have avoided that problem. We love the silly, we love the substantive, and we love making advertising that is actually compelling. And when we are good at these three things it benefits everyone and the world.
One more highlight:
Our teams focused on social advertising are totally killing it, with a consultative sales team full of ideas for clients, a creative services team making incredibly entertaining and sharable ads, a social discovery team expanding campaigns to Facebook, Twitter, and across the web, and an ad ops team that traffics our campaigns with skill, grace, and dogged determination – it’s not surprising we are blowing away all our revenue goals. Gong!
What Does “Native Advertising” Cost?
Felix Salmon points out that online ads are “easy to ignore, there’s nothing inherently interesting about them, and insofar as they grab your attention, they tend to do so in a very annoying way, by preventing you from reading or watching the thing you were looking for”:
Hence the rise of so-called native ads: things you want to read and look at and click on. There’s a certain amount of promise there, and the native-ad industry is certainly going to grow from its present size. But it’s tough: building these things is a huge amount of work for the advertiser, with no guaranteed payoff. And selling them is even more work for any publisher. And here’s the next big problem with selling online advertising, especially native advertising: it’s really expensive to do so. While online journalism is still cheap, online ad-sales staffers tend to cost a fortune, especially if they have a clue what they’re doing.
He goes on:
I was told this evening that Buzzfeed alone has no fewer than sixty ad-sales people, all of whom are out there, knocking on doors, taking potential clients out to lunch, and generating income one hard-won deal at a time. That doesn’t scale.
Spot The Sponsored Content
A reader writes:
This discussion about blurring the lines of advertising and journalistic content reminded me of the House of Cards ad campaign on Politico. For weeks leading up to the Netflix premiere, the political news site had a pop-up ad for House of Cards plastered all over their site and app. Then they started running articles with interviews from the creator and Kevin Spacey that were also preceded by the same ad as well as the banner at the bottom of the page. Then the day prior to the show’s premier they did a follow-up story, again with the banner ad at the bottom of the article (see attached screenshot). Politico even gets a shout-out on the show when Zoe leaves the world of old media to take a job with the new media site Slugline: “Six months from now, Slugline will be what Politico was a year and a half ago. Everyone at Politico reads it because Slugline’s breaking stories before they are.”
Obviously I don’t know what the contractual agreement is between the two parties, but this stuff just reminds me of shit that the right-wing media pulls when they scare their audience about out-of-control inflation and economic doomsday scenarios during a segment that segues into commercials for gold and survival seed packs. I’m all for new revenue streams, but content created in conjunction with the advertisers can be a slippery slope. One only needs to look at the cozy relationship between the tobacco companies and cable networks during the ’50s to see how a myopic deference to advertisers can do the public a disservice.
A bleg to readers: email us with more examples you find of editorial content and advertising placed perilously close together.
Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad, Ctd
A bunch of readers are still sounding off:
Thought I’d bring this to your attention, vis-a-vis your back-and-forth with Buzzfeed: the Native Advertising Summit, “The first conference dedicated to defining and discussing the future of native advertising.” Unfortunately, the summit is mostly over, but I’m hoping there’s a stream of it. I know a lot of these people. They mean well, but try as one might, they have trouble understanding what the problem is with Native Advertising, starting with that atrocious name.
Another points to a troubling detail:
One big difference with Buzzfeed’s sponsored articles is that they appear in searches and are, still, undifferentiated from “real” articles. What other sites show the ads along with the editorial content? Up until now ads were ephemeral. They appeared on a site and were clearly ads. When the site is archived the ads were not (though the archives may also display ads). This extends the confusion far down the road. With sponsored content that is archived the ad, and any bias, extends well into the future. I am not sure what the consequences are but I doubt they are good.
Another reader isn’t too concerned:
Buzzfeed’s convolution of content and advertising seems like a pretty minor sin in the grand scheme of our modern media. Our media has been replete with sponsored content for decades in the form of DC elites leaking information and using journalist mouth pieces to win political arguments. The articles that Judith Miller wrote in the run up to the Iraq war are sponsored content, just not in the way we typically think about it. That kind of sponsorship is far more insidious than an advertisement made to look like content.
Another goes in depth with a helpful and revealing screenshot below:
Nobody expects BuzzFeed to be the standard bearer of modern journalism. But I think most people would want them to be honest brokers of their product.
If their product is cool stuff they found on the internet, then that should be presented as such. And unlike The Atlantic, almost nothing on BuzzFeed is original content – and that’s okay (kind of) because they almost always point that out and provide a link to the original source. Think of BuzzFeed as the Huffington Post of cat videos (it’s no coincidence that they both have the same founder – Jonah Peretti). But the problem is that BuzzFeed is scraping content from other sites and then using it to promote their sponsor’s products and they are doing so without sharing revenue with the actual creator of the content. Perhaps the content creator may get a ‘bump’ in internet traffic, but that’s all they’re ever going to get.
To illustrate the point (problem?) I took a screenshot of BuzzFeed today (February 22, 2013). In those spaces you can explicitly see the words “partner” or “featured partner” and brands that you recognize like Honda, Fuze, IFC and The Daily Beast. These are obviously ads. Maybe the content looks just like all the other stuff, but they aren’t fooling anyone.
But that is not all of the sponsored content on your screen. Not even a little bit. Most of the sponsored content is hidden. Look at the posts I’ve highlighted in orange. The ‘Hot on the Web’ section is simply a collection of links to partner sites like The Onion, People Magazine and The Atlantic. The story about cyberbullying is an excerpt from a book by Emily Bazelon and sponsored by Random House – but you don’t find out about that until after you’ve read the whole article. That picture of Bert down at the bottom is an ad for Halls lozenges and the article about some guy selling his socks on ebay is just some guy pushing his own webpage. The music section is brought to you by streaming music company radio and the FTW badge is brought to you by Fuze – a registered trademark of Coca-Cola. But I think the greatest offender is the headline story about Best Picture nominees which is brought to you by (Dunh! Dunh! Dunh!) The Academy Awards.
But on top of the ads marked as ads and the ads masquerading as content there are some gray areas where scraped content and advertising cross paths again, but the content isn’t necessarily sponsored by anyone. In these situations I’ve marked the content yellow. In this grey area (yellow area?) we have Andrew Kacynski “writing” what is simply a repurposed press release from the WWE, another repurposed press release from Billboard magazine and another glorified press release about an innovative use of the White Album from website Dust and Grooves. There’s a suspiciously in depth description of an incident on the Kathy Griffin show, as well as posts which are lifted almost verbatim from their sources – a liquor infographic taken in its whole from an artist on the Behance network and a video of some kid dissing the NBA that’s been lifted from Los That Sports.
BuzzFeed’s problem isn’t that there’s an unmarked article here or there that’s just a glorified advertorial, like The Atlantic. BuzzFeed’s problem is that it’s all glorified advertorials, with the occasional piece of ‘original’ content (and by ‘original’ content, I mean something they scrape from somewhere else and only casually make reference to the actual original, if they make mention at all).
Update from a reader who objects to the problematic previous entry:
The reader may take offense with the re-appropriation of content on BuzzFeed found on other websites, but the posts marked in orange and yellow are not sponsored stories. That is to say, BuzzFeed received no compensation from any of the so-called “sponsors” of any of those stories. Every piece marked in orange or yellow was either written independently by editorial staff at BuzzFeed or, in the case of the stories from other publishers in the “Big Stories” column or the row of thumbnails on top, link directly to those publisher’s websites.
Suggesting that these are “ads” or toeing the line into advertising is a fairly ridiculous standard – the cover story that is supposedly “sponsored by the Academy Awards” is a timeline of each Best Picture nominee’s path from conception to actually being made, written by Richard Rushfield, a veteran entertainment reporter formerly of the LA Times. “Copyranter” is a paid blogger at BuzzFeed (his writing is no more sponsored than your “Cool Ad Watch”), and since when is publishing book excerpts or covering press releases considered advertising? Held to this standard, much of the entire blogosphere would be considered advertising, including the Dish.
I work in the business department at BuzzFeed and spent most of the day following your talk defending the valid points I thought you made. But do please try to avoid publishing unfounded accusations (like the suggestion that the writer of the Sony ad wrote its subsequent product review on the site). It hurts your credibility and takes attention away from the much more pertinent, and important, criticisms you have to make.
Longtime reader, new subscriber to the Dish. Like you, I am also suspicious of the sponsored posts on Buzzfeed, but I’m not sure it’s unprecedented. My mother spent many years working at Newsweek in charge of producing the magazine’s special sections. These sections were written in a different font than the magazine, but were in center of the book and were essentially advertorials. Special sections were on subjects as varied as heart health, fall fashion, the national parks, etc. My mother got writers who were experts on these subjects to write articles, and the sections drew in advertisers who wouldn’t normally buy ads in a general interest publication.
The articles in these special sections was not written by the advertisers per se, but they definitely were not written by Newsweek’s journalists. The purpose of the special sections was too draw ad dollars, so they usually weren’t hard hitting, And there’s no question that they emerged from the business side of the magazine. It’s not an exact analogue to what Buzzfeed is doing, but it isn’t that much of a departure either.
This blurred line isn’t new; it’s just new to the Internet. Radio announcers have been doing it for nearly a century. You listen to local DJs with a wide audience, and in between jokes and gags they launch into a 3-minute soliloquy about the newest Italian joint in town, live on air as part of the “show”. At no point do they reference that it’s sponsored content or an advertisement. But regular fans of the show catch on mostly due to repetition and the fact that the content slides into an “uncanny valley” of entertainment. Buzzfeed readers will figure out the cues too. I’ve already begun to.
Update from a reader, who counters the previous one:
This may have been true a century ago, but for decades it has been illegal. Fine-and-imprisonment illegal. A sponsored mention must be identified as such, as part of the mention itself. Radio staff must not only sign affidavits saying they understand this policy, they also must annually view presentations about the policy and pass an exam about it. That’s how illegal it is.
Are there still blurred lines? Yes; you’ll still hear a DJ thank Taco Bell for dropping off samples of that new item on their menu, it tasted great. But that will last 15 seconds or less, it will be recorded and logged. 3-minute soliloquies about ANYTHING on a music radio station are the kiss of death anyway.
Another on radio ads:
I had an interesting realization this morning on the way to work: I listen to moderately disguised sponsored content on the radio all the time. I love Philly Sports radio and tune in any time I’m in a car. Their ad model includes their popular personalities endorsing products in their own voice without a clear delineation between content and ads. The ads are unmistakeably about products, but sometimes are so woven into the discussion at hand and so tonally similar that it’s hard to tell.
The interesting realization, given my general agreement with you on the issue, is that in that context I honestly don’t mind at all and – egad! – I’ve actually purchased some products that were advertised. I can’t recall ever buying anything because of a web ad, but our mortgage, wedding rings, and some home electronics are all from “sponsored content” I heard. Sure, radio is a totally different medium, but I now find myself much less offended by sponsored ads in general. My only remaining caveat (and The Atlantic’s giant screw up) is that the editors need to have no problem associating their good name with the product at hand.
As a paid up Dish-head, I wanted to email in about my total boredom with your series on Buzzfeed. Every time I read one of your pieces, I want to scream the same thing over and over again: If anyone is unhappy with what Buzzfeed (and the like) is doing, don’t bloody read it! No one is holding a gun to your head.
Like many Internet users, I occasionally visit Buzzfeed. There’s the decent item here and there, they do a mean gif round-up and their reactions to big events always give me a minute or two of amusement. As a user of a free site, obviously you expect ads, and if they happen to be a bit more clever than the usual dirge offering pills, penis enhancements and amazing ways to make money, in the grand scheme of things, who gives a damn? No one who visits Buzzfeed is going there for thought-provoking, independent journalism – they do some decent political titbits, but titbits are all they are.
Why the hell are you taking it so seriously? The market will soon sort them out if their advertising strategy turns out to be be a sea of deep, insidious evil. Please drop this silly subject – there’s far more important things going on that we want your insight and input on.
“Sponsored Content” Now Infiltrating Fark
Jeff Bercovici has the goods. Bottom-line: Buzzfeed is using “featured partner links” on Fark to direct traffic to its “sponsored content.” I love this quote from Buzzfeed’s spokesperson:
We’re working with a number of sites, including Fark, to extend our content-driven social advertising to third party sites.
So now it’s “content-driven social advertising”. The damage these people do to the English language is as great as their undermining of ethical distinctions between advertising and writing. Unless you look very closely at the small print, you’ll soon be getting links and posts you may think are journalism – with the Atlantic and Buzzfeed and others branding the page. But all you’re reading is corporate propaganda. Just keep your eyes open.
Spot The Sponsored Content, Ctd
A reader passes along the “Examples of Native Advertising” entry on WikiExample. It’s a terrific guide to some of the tricks of the trade. The caption for the above screenshot:
Devour’s video ads are integrated with all of their curated videos and clearly marked as an “AD.” In the bottom right corner there is an ad for “Mouthopedia,” which is an entertaining video by Mcdonalds about their Bigmac. This allows the advertiser to get a similar CTR [Click-through rate] as the other spots as it is right in line to the other curated videos.
But at least it clearly says “AD”. I’d rather the word “ADVERTISEMENT”. It’s what we’re used to in understanding the difference between editorial and advertizing. Update from a reader:
I think Wiki is using an old method of Devour IDing ads. The site doesn’t even mark them anymore, so it’s even worse now. For example, a Grey Poupon ad the site is hosting as “Sponsored Video” (a small label in the same color font as the video’s description, thus barely noticeable) is not even labeled as such on the front page.
A reader adds to this post about Buzzfeed using Fark to direct traffic to its ads:
I’m a long-time Farker and I’ve noticed these new Buzzfeed links, too. The existence of sponsored links isn’t new to Fark, actually. We’ve seen sponsored headlines for a few years (e.g., from Cracked). What makes these new ads really different is that there isn’t a link to comments. Fark is a comment-driven site and the lack of ability to comment on a link like this really makes it stand out, and not in a good way. When Cracked sponsors a link, there’s a risk that they’ll draw in snark if the link sucks. In a weird way, that makes me respect those links more, even though they’re just as commercially driven and, if anything, more stealthy. The lack of ability to talk about the Buzzfeed links signals, to me, a lack of confidence, and I’m sure that I’m not the only Farker who feels the same. Because of this, I don’t think that they’re doing their advertisers much of a favor with this trick.
Several more examples from readers below:
I don’t know if you saw it but at the bottom of the “sponsored content” IBM ad on The Atlantic you linked to it states that “comments for this thread are now closed”. I wanted to leave a comment expressing my displeasure with the ad. Alas, I cannot, but there are no other comments in there anyway. Were comments ever open?
I also notice the article was tweeted 37 times. I wonder how many of those twitter uses knew/did not know that this was an ad.
I wonder how many of them work for IBM or the Atlantic. Another:
Check out one of the more popular tech sites, Techmeme. It says “Sponsor Posts” but I used to click on them without realizing it until it hit me recently.
Still, the Techmeme sponsored ads are clearly not Techmeme once you get past the homepage. They have a different font, look, design and feel. Again, with enough clarity and disclosure, you can create ads that are not like, say, the Atlantic’s blatant tactics of making its ads almost indistinguishable from its editorial content. Another:
This “sponsored content” on Deadspin was written by a real writer with a byline. The word “sponsored” only appears twice on the page. And there are no comments.
But that’s Gawker. It doesn’t even pretend to be ethical about anything. Another turns the tables:
I’d like to remind you of a post of yours from a few months ago, “A Bigger, Hairier Rom-Com,” about the premiere of Bear City 2. Your disclosure is pretty weak here. “Aaron’s in it” is only sufficient for people who are regular readers who pay attention to your personal life and totally discounts readers who started reading your blog since the last time you mentioned your husband Aaron. I can miss this detail just as easily as glancing over “Sponsored by Brand X” in a by-line.
While there’s a HUGE difference between the advertorials you’ve posted here and your post, it’s not unreasonable to assume that you have a financial incentive to encourage more people to see your spouse’s movie by giving it free publicity. I’m not calling you out, and I don’t think for a second that Aaron twisted your arm or that you had some motive for the post other than “people will like this movie that I liked,” but at the end of the day, your editorial content was advertising. I’m just trying to keep you honest.
Here’s the line in the post in the first paragraph:
Full disclosure: Aaron’s in it. Provincetown is the star. Hence my review.
I don’t know why that is weak. And Aaron has received no money from the movie since it ended production.
And Emerson Wept
The Atlantic‘s new sponsored prose:
Just as the current marketing environment is driving a culture of customer centricity and personalized interaction, a cultural shift is required inside the organization as well. Closing the gap between marketing requirements and IT capabilities requires a culture of collaboration in which the CMO and CIO work towards a set of agreed-upon goals that factor in both marketing and IT interests.
Spot The Sponsored Content, Ctd
Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray uncovers a more clear-cut and troubling example of paid content (without even Buzzfeed’s and the Atlantic’s fig-leaf disclosures) masquerading as editorial:
A range of mainstream American publications printed paid propaganda for the government of Malaysia, much of it focused on the campaign against a pro-democracy figure there. The payments to conservative American opinion writers — whose work appeared in outlets from the Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner to the Washington Times to National Review and RedState — emerged in a filing this week to the Department of Justice. The filing under the Foreign Agent Registration Act outlines a campaign spanning May 2008 to April 2011 and led by Joshua Trevino, a conservative pundit, who received $389,724.70 under the contract and paid smaller sums to a series of conservative writers.
Let’s name the offenders, shall we?
Trevino’s subcontractors included conservative writer Ben Domenech, who made $36,000 from the arrangement, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Center for Democracy, who made $30,000. Seth Mandel, an editor at Commentary, made $5,500 (his byline is attached to the National Review item linked to above). Brad Jackson, writing at the time for RedState, made $24,700. Overall, 10 writers were part of the arrangement.
Treviño, amazingly, maintains he did not cross any lines:
“It was actually a fairly standard PR operation,” Trevino told BuzzFeed Friday. “To be blunt with you, and I think the filing is clear about this, it was a lot looser than a typical PR operation. I wanted to respect these guys’ independence and not have them be placement machines.”
Rich Abdill pushes back:
If “a fairly standard PR operation” involves paying off columnists to write about certain things, it seems journalists at every other publication ever were just misinformed about what was “ethical.” Jayson Blair stole quotes, made up stories, reported on events he never went to, then put it all in the New York Times, and he still did not take any bribes.
Joyner takes a similarly skeptical approach:
I’m more than a little leery of a pay-for-play arrangement. It’s hard for opinion writers, even good ones, to get paid. So I’m not four-square against bloggers taking money for writing posts supporting causes they already agree with. But it’s problematic, not to mention rather weird, for writers to suddenly start crusading on an issue they never cared about previously and which seems remote to their natural interest.
This is bribery and unethical journalism in my book. It also raises questions about the good faith of other work by the journalists involved. When there is no disclosure we can never know what is paid propaganda and what is actual journalism. Which, of course, is the point.
Chelsea Clinton, NBC And “Journalism”
A reader writes:
I’ve enjoyed your series on “Sponsored Content” and the fusion of news and advertising, but you haven’t really touched upon the granddaddy of them all: the fusion of politics and “news”. Here is an example: “NBC Today News: Chelsea Clinton: Hillary is as Vibrant as Ever“. Here we have an NBC News employee writing a “journalism” piece on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It uses quotes from Chelsea Clinton, who just happens to also be a NBC News Employee. In addition, the article is written by an NBC News “contributor” – Eun Kyung Kim – who just happens to be the Director of Communications for the National Women’s Business Council, which provides advice and counsel to the President of the United States. In addition, this “contributor” worked as a Senior Advisor on Communications and Policy to the White House in 2011. According to Eun Kyung Kim’s LinkedIn page, she has a “Proven record of originating, developing and implementing strategic communications plans that help raise a brand’s visibility and build relevant audiences.”
This article by an NBC NEWS division is nothing more than a press release, which was practically written by Hillary herself. Let’s examine some of Eun Kyung Kim’s other pieces of “journalism” for NBC News, shall we? “Hillary Clinton to Write Second Memoir“, “Hillary Clinton Steps Down, but (reluctant) Style Legacy Endures,” “Hillary Clinton: “Maybe I’ll get a Decorating Show”, Chelsea Clinton reveals Politics, Kids are a Possibility“, Michelle Obama: “Bangs are my Midlife Crisis.” This is simply advertising for Powerful Democratic Women. Pure propaganda. And written by a current Director of Communications to a Presidential Advisory Counsel under the guise of a journalist. And lastly, this whole ruse is pitched to the low information voter under the morning news provided by the popular Today Show.
Freelancing In The Digital Age, Ctd
I’m thrilled there was an opportunity to be a poor freelance blogger … I would have done it for free. Putting CNN, The Atlantic, and Fast Company on my resume gave me extraordinary access to the top rungs of the business and political world. I was addicted to meeting fascinating people and writing (hopefully) compelling stories. It eventually gave me the credentials to get my first paid gig back at Fast Company.
I’m a libertarian. If it’s all voluntary, I don’t have a huge problem per se. What I would like to know, though, is: who is being asked to work for free on the business side? Or how many times does a business honcho there ask another businessman to donate his services for free? The question answers itself. And you know what that tells you: the management of the Atlantic now cares more about money than writing – and in the process, they are damaging the most precious commodity they have, editorial integrity. That’s been clear for a while now, as has the silencing of dissent among writers and commenters. Clay Shirky puts the systemic problem well, in a reply to Alexis:
I think you missed another of the reasons this blew up yesterday (the one you and I talked about in email a while back.) We don’t trust the Atlantic as much as we used to.
Your willingness to rent out your brand to Scientology, and then to silence the readers who tried to comment on that bit of infotainment (which, the official apology notwithstanding, was not a marketing mistake, but a conscious decision to censor your readers on behalf of your advertisers) put a bunch of us on edge, and we began to ask ourselves whether that was an out of character fuck-up, or a culture slowly going to shit.
I hope for the former, as you know, but you have to understand that when something like this happens, it’s not just that something went awry, it’s another thing that went awry at The Atlantic. I know the issues are complex and the editor was new, but there was a lot of circumstantial pleading for the advertorial cock-up as well. You guys have very little slack before people start publicly unsubscribing.
Here’s one personal anecdote.
The Atlantic.com reads, at times, like an IBM propaganda sheet (see the screen shot above – where, yes, the “sponsor content” is from IBM as well as the banner ad and video). Throughout the site, there are ads after ads by IBM, videos after videos, and “sponsored content” posts of horrible prose and worse jargon promoting the latest corporate management bullshit. And then I’m reading the new Atlantic cover-story on robotic medicine, by Jon Cohn, a superb journalist, edited by great editors. I do not doubt for an instant that this piece was fully ethical.
But then, on the first page or two, for the first time ever reading the Atlantic, my doubts arose. Why? The whole piece is centered on … wait for it … IBM’s super-computer Watson. Money quote:
IBM’s Watson—the same machine that beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy—is now churning through case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, learning to make diagnoses and treatment recommendations. This is one in a series of developments suggesting that technology may be about to disrupt health care in the same way it has disrupted so many other industries. Are doctors necessary? Just how far might the automation of medicine go?
From the piece itself:
IBM didn’t build Watson to win game shows. The company is developing Watson to help professionals with complex decision making, like the kind that occurs in oncologists’ offices—and to point out clinical nuances that health professionals might miss on their own.
I still trust that the Atlantic did not run this cover-story as a way to curry favor with an advertiser that is also running “sponsor content” articles extolling their innovation. I do not believe this was product placement. But I can no longer say that those who wonder about that are crazy. When you rent out your name, prose, font, logo and pages to corporations’ “sponsored content” and then write cover-puff-pieces about the technology of exactly those companies, a reader has every reason to wonder whether they can trust a magazine that was only recently almost a symbol of such trust. As a deep lover of the Atlantic, it’s distressing, to put it mildly.
“It’s Not An Ad, It’s Thought-Leadership”
Shafer tackles sponsored content:
When Web publishers deliberately blur the visual and textual divide that separates editorial from advertising, as The Atlantic did, they force readers to judge whether a page is news/opinion or a commercial advertisement. But they’re not confused; it’s the publisher and the advertiser who are confused. The publishers and advertisers have polluted their own tradition by erasing the traditional line. Suddenly, it’s completely reasonable for readers to blame controversial news stories directly on advertisers and blame controversial advertisements directly on reporters and editors, because publishers and advertisers have essentially merged operations. Such calamities injure both publisher and advertiser, even already controversial advertisers like Scientology …
I’m not an absolutist. I’ve never feared advertising that advertises itself as advertising. I’m prepared to accept that an advertiser could produce content worthy of my time, though I’ve yet to witness that miracle. I don’t even fear “thought leadership,” as long as the wallet financing the composition and promulgation of the thoughts can be identified, as was the case when Herb Schmertz, Mobil Oil’s vice-president for public affairs, routinely published his company’s “low-key advocacy ads” on the New York Times op-ed page beginning in the early 1970s. Just make sure I can see the line.
As a great wag once said, a newspaper is nothing but an advertisement with a news story printed on the back. That arrangement has worked well for American publishers, readers and advertisers for two centuries. But can it work if you have to guess which side contains the ad?
Three cheers for Shafer writing that stuff for Reuters. It’s amazing how little public debate this media-corporate whoring has generated … in the press. Writers at the Atlantic have been formally warned not to talk to anyone from the press. And you can see why: the “sponsor-content” press doesn’t want to expose its sordid desperation. Which itself lends credibility to the idea that the Fourth Estate – if it cannot easily be distinguished from corporate and government power – is fast disappearing.
This is not about media narcissism. It’s about a critical independent pillar of our democracy, a truly independent press, a pillar that is being demolished even by magazines with as distinguished a past as the Atlantic.
Quote For The Day
“The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so completely modern in spirit. There was hardly a soul in the firm who was not perfectly well aware that publicity – advertising – is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced. In the red lead firm there had still lingered certain notions of commercial honor and usefulness. But such things would have been laughed at in the New Albion. Most the employees were the hard-boiled, Americanized, go-getting type to whom nothing in the world is sacred, except money. They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertizing is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. And yet beneath their cynicism there was the final naivete, the blind worship of the money-god,” – George Orwell, Keep The Aspidistra Flying.
(Hat tip: Shafer.)
And Emerson Wept, Ctd
More scintillating IBM prose from the magazine that once published Mark Twain:
The successful CMOs will be the ones who will drive change across the enterprise to ensure that every touch point is building brand equity instead of diluting it. Companies will also need to start paying attention to a whole new set of metrics in this new world. They need to understand who their brand advocates and detractors are, and what shapes their attitudes and drives their behavior. They need to keep track of near-advocates, and what type of interactions will turn them into advocates.
Similarly they need to keep a close eye on near-detractors, and what type of actions can reduce the probability of them turning into active and vocal detractors.
Not running this kind of corporate crap as sponsored journalism would help.
The Darkest Corners Of Sponsored Content
Christian Caryl digs into the backstory of the recent revelations surrounding the Malaysian government’s sponsored content. The paid editorials of Josh Treviño and Ben Domenech were apparently part of a larger campaign to discredit Clare Rewcastle-Brown, a blogger critical of the country’s corruption:
One company, the lobbying firm APCO Worldwide, hired Texas-based conservative blogger Josh Trevino and a range of other writers to come up with content designed to blacken the opposition. His work included setting up a sock-puppet site bearing the title “Sarawak Reports” (only that final “s” distinguished it from the British journalist’s own blog) stuffed with positive stories about [government minister] Taib. (The bogus site has since been removed, though Rewcastle-Brown cites it in this expose on her own site.)
Trevino heatedly denied working for the Malaysians when challenged on the same point back in 2011; a few weeks ago, he was compelled to retract his denial when paperwork emerged showing that he had indeed taken money from the Malaysian government.
Today In Sponsored Content
Instapundit takes the cake, as he so often does. Also: shooting supplies!
This Just In: Journalism Sells!
Christine Haughney breaks down Time‘s recent sales numbers:
Publishing a 36-page cover article called “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us” certainly didn’t seem like a shameless attempt to bolster newsstand sales for Time magazine. But the 25,000-word article that Steven Brill wrote for the magazine’s March 4 issue appears to be on course to become its best-selling cover in nearly two years. Ali Zelenko, a Time spokeswoman, said the issue sold more than double the typical number of copies. …
The most surprising attention came from younger readers on social media who are less immediately concerned with medical bills. The article was shared 100 times more often on social media than the average Time article in 2013, and the #BitterPill hashtag was mentioned nearly 6,000 times on Twitter.
Long-form journalism has a future among readers. But among many editors and publishers? Alas, they’re too busy asking advertisers what they want to peddle. For my part, if we can raise the revenues, it makes the Deep Dish project for long-form non-fiction more exciting. The market is open. The writers need a platform, as general interest magazines cling to survival. We’re not there yet, but you can help us get there by one simple thing: subscribe! And we’ll deliver.
Chart Of The Day
Derek Thompson passes along some bad news:
In 2012, newspapers lost $16 in print ads for every $1 earned in digital ads. And it’s getting worse, according to a new report by Pew. In 2011, the ratio was just 10-to-1.
Dissent Of The Day
A reader tires of our comprehensive coverage of “enhanced advertorial techniques”:
I don’t usually write, but your rants on ad-sponsored content are REALLY getting tired (and the latest dig at The Atlantic in an unrelated article dealing with telepresence robots was a little childish). Please stop bashing other companies that aren’t doing as well as you are and that are forced to resort to advertising to make money. There are great people at The Atlantic and David Bradley and Co. are doing their best to stay in business and generate the same excellent content provided by Fallows, Goldblog, and others. Traditional ads don’t generate sufficient revenue for those companies. What’s more, I don’t particularly care if I’m being marketed to and manipulated, because I’m getting their service for FREE.
All else equal, I’d gladly take The Atlantic‘s model, where I have to deal with ads, manipulative or otherwise, than yours, where I have to pay. Of course, because I enjoy your blog so much, all else isn’t equal here, but the point stands that you’re doing well in your new system (at least from my perspective) because of you and your team and in SPITE of your model, not the other way around.
You’ve done remarkably well for yourself, which is the primary reason your model is working. Good for you, and I of course remain a devoted Dishhead. That said, I have been meaning to pay for your service since your model went pay-for, but this “holier-than-thou” attitude makes me feel like I’ll just be feeding this ego/arrogance and perpetuating this non-stop torrent of bitterness. The whole thing seems a little transparent and self-serving, and I think you’re better than this.
My one and only concern is that in an era when advertisers have publishers by the short and curlies, that we do not give away the village in order to keep it. It’s the crafty fusion of advertising and editorial content that troubles me – and that risks the integrity of the core content. If we really are going to merge advertizing and journalism in the coming years, as seems an increasingly popular idea, I think it’s worth resisting and asking some core questions. Not out of smugness. It’s far too soon to declare our venture as a success. But because there are some principles at stake here, important ethical ones, and they are not being aired in the rest of the media – because no one wants to undermine their future commercial viability.
So I’m doing what only a truly independent blog can: raising an issue the MSM cannot or won’t. And it isn’t childish to note a simple example of how the decline of trust between publisher and reader caused by sponsored content can affect an otherwise good piece. If your magazine is partly under-written by IBM and your cover-story is about IBM’s brilliant new computer, you are doing the writers and editors a disservice by the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Tonight’s Seder Brought To You By Maxwell House
But first, for all you goys, a historical primer on the holiday:
Chet Fenster argues that the coffee company created the “perfect example of how to do branded content right”:
In 1923, Maxwell House saw an opportunity and introduced the first kosher for Passover coffee; others soon followed. Looking to solidify the brand in the minds of Jewish consumers in the early 1930s, Maxwell House’s ad agency employed an innovative marketing tactic for the time: branded content.
Well, that’s what we call it today. In fact, Maxwell House decided to publish a book, specifically a Haggadah, and offer it to customers for free with the purchase of a can of coffee. (A Haggadah recounts the Exodus from Egypt, comprised of prayers, songs, and stories which guide the Passover Seder.) The Maxwell House edition was an instant hit. Today, it’s the most popular Haggadah in the world, with over 50 million printed.
This Haggadah is so ubiquitous that it’s become difficult to find others. When I went to a Judaica shop in NYC looking to buy a nice set of Haggadahs, the salesperson suggested I hit the supermarket and pick up the Maxwell House edition: “They’re really good,” she exclaimed.
The Dark Age Of Journalism
Finally, a handful of journalists are beginning to tell the truth about the accelerating fusion of journalism with advertising:
One could say, “Oh, magazines. That industry has always been a brothel.” Which is true – although not of the news and public policy segments. And one could say, “Tut tut. TV was whoring itself to audiences long before anyone ever uttered the words ‘click bait.’” Which is also true.
The problem is, it is decreasingly useful to separate these industries by medium. Text, audio and video are rapidly converging. As journalism brands grow to look more like one another, we are seeing unmistakable signs of publishers slouching toward an ethical lowest common denominator.
Anyone who cares deeply about quality, independent journalism should pray for paywalls and other subscription models to take hold. Because in the world of the smart and the desperate, desperate always has the last word.
I was particularly taken by the remarks of this commenter, rebutting the argument that all this change is inevitable. It isn’t. And the change is not a new way for journalism; it’s euthanizing its critical, independent role in a democratic society:
You don’t think it matters that the industry that is responsible for the dissemination of information is increasingly ceding editorial control to PR firms simply to stay afloat?
Democracy is a market in which politicians design policies to get votes. Like any market, it relies on information and signals being reliably transmitted from producer to consumer and vice versa. In a situation where the producer can effectively block the signals that actually their policies are designed simply to siphon wealth from everyone else into the pockets of the rich, what do you think happens to that market? Yep, that’s right, you get a choice between red, blue and yellow versions of producers all with the same agenda.
We are reaching a point at which there will be many fewer actual media companies, and more and more companies which learn to mimic what used to be journalism in order to sell their products. We’ve gone from advertizing supporting journalism to journalism supporting corporate propaganda. At the rate we’re going, as the line between church and state is deliberately blurred by desperate media companies, we may end up with a handful of actual independent online magazines and newspapers and a vast industry of corporate propaganda designed to look like the real thing. If we’re lucky.
(Photo: one of Tom Scott’s Journalism Warning Labels)
A Bigger Fig-Leaf For The Atlantic
The Atlantic, to their credit, appear to be beefing up the difference between their corporate propaganda masquerading as editorial product and their actual editorial product. Here’s the first iteration of their whored-out-to-corporations model:
And here’s the new version:
Notice the new yellow Atlantic banner; how the Sponsor Content label has been increased in size and punch. Better still, we have this disclaimer after the by-line:
That’s all good news. I hope others follow if they have to pursue this revenue model.
“An Invitation To Evil”
Here’s a reminder of why “sponsored content” should be anathema to a free and independent press: E.B. White’s letter to Xerox after the company sponsored content in a 1976 issue of Esquire:
A funded article is a tempting morsel for any publication—particularly for one that is having a hard time making ends meet. A funded assignment is a tempting dish for a writer, who may pocket a much larger fee than he is accustomed to getting. And sponsorship is attractive to the sponsor himself, who, for one reason or another, feels an urge to penetrate the editorial columns after being so long pent up in the advertising pages. These temptations are real, and if the barriers were to be let down I believe corruption and abuse would soon follow.
Not all corporations would approach subsidy in the immaculate way Xerox did or in the same spirit of benefaction. There are a thousand reasons for someone’s wishing to buy his way into print, many of them unpalatable, all of them to some degree self-serving. Buying and selling space in news columns could become a serious disease of the press. If it reached epidemic proportions, it could destroy the press. I don’t want IBM or the National Rifle Association providing me with a funded spectacular when I open my paper. I want to read what the editor and the publisher have managed to dig up on their own—and paid for out of the till. …
The funded article is not in itself evil, but it is the beginning of evil, and it is an invitation to evil. I hope the invitation will not again be extended, and, if extended, I hope it will be declined.
At the time, the NYT covered the uproar over the Xerox-sponsored content:
The article by Mr. [Harrison E.] Salisbury, former associate editor of The New York Times, provoked editorials around the country and protests from writers who feared that it would set a precedent for encroachment by advertisers into the traditionally independent editorial side of journalism. Under the arrangement, Xerox paid Esquire to commission Mr. Salisbury to write “Travels Through America,” a 23-page article that took six months to complete. Mr. Salisbury was paid $40,000 plus $15,000 in expenses. Esquire in turn received a contract for a $115,000 advertising package from Xerox for one year.
The agreement stipulated that Xerox would not interfere with or have any influence over the article, but would run full-page ads at the beginning and the end of the article. If the corporation did not like the essay, Esquire would be free to publish it, without returning Xerox’s money, but without identifying it with Xerox in any way. “It was an experimental idea and since the big corporations sponsor television specials and other cultural enterprises, I saw nothing wrong with it,” said Mr. Salisbury yesterday to Mr. White’s criticism. He added that “magazines are suffering from lack of funds to pay their writers. “I’ve had no bad feedback from the article and if it is done just like our arrangement, that’s fine,” he said. “It worked like a charm.”
The NYT is prepping a report on this phenomenon, which is now spreading like wildfire in online media and in danger of becoming the norm. It’s a rare moment when the press has covered this issue – perhaps because the NYT is one of the few media brands self-confident enough to take it on, without worrying it will need to go there in the near-future.
(Hat tip: Ernie Smith)
Sponsored Content Is Spreading
by Patrick Appel
Even the Almighty is getting in on the action:
More seriously, Vice apparently relies heavily on sponsored content:
Vice makes more than eighty per cent of its revenue online, much of it through sponsored content, a growing area in online media. Besides selling banner displays and short ads that play before its videos, Vice offers its advertisers the option of funding an entire project in exchange for being listed as co-creator and having editorial input. Advertisers can pay for a single video, or, for a higher price—one to five million dollars for twelve episodes, according to Vice—they can pay for an entire series, on a topic that dovetails with the company’s image. (The North Face, the outdoors company, recently sponsored a series called “Far Out,” in which Vice staffers visit people living in “the most remote places on Earth.”)
Meanwhile, Richard Gingras, Senior Director of News and Social Products at Google, describes Google’s firm stance against “promotional and commerce journalism”:
If a site mixes news content with affiliate, promotional, advertorial, or marketing materials (for your company or another party), we strongly recommend that you separate non-news content on a different host or directory, block it from being crawled with robots.txt, or create a Google News Sitemap for your news articles only. Otherwise, if we learn of promotional content mixed with news content, we may exclude your entire publication from Google News.
Jessica Bennett went from being a reporter at Newsweek (among other outlets) to becoming the executive editor of the now-defunct Storyboard, “an independent journalistic platform hosted at Tumblr.” She talks to Ann Friedman about working at a “brand-affiliated publication”:
Consumers are getting smarter about traditional advertising and marketing, she adds, and some companies are taking the unorthodox approach of directly employing journalists—whose ideas and copy they don’t directly control—to cover their brand or community … For reporters and editors tired of layoffs and buyouts, these jobs offer a middle ground between journalism and copywriting, a way to take home a decent paycheck without feeling like you’ve sold out completely.
Whose copy they don’t control? Buzzfeed would never tolerate that. Despite the fact that many of the Storyboard pieces were published in other traditional journalistic outlets, she struggled with how her work was being perceived by others:
“There is a lot of crap journalism out there, so sometimes it bothers me when people get all high and mighty about branded content. I really think it’s the story, not where it comes from.” But it’s increasingly difficult to figure out where a story comes from. As sponsored journalistic content and branded advertorial and brand-affiliated independent publications proliferate, the lines are getting blurrier and blurrier. It might be helpful for media consumers to demand more up-front information on how a story was produced—who paid for it? And who signed off on its publication? The Storyboard editors never published a statement explaining their editorial independence or decision-making process, though Bennett says, “we probably should have.”
Quote For The Day
“As recently as a few months ago, we thought it was premature for POLITICO to start asking readers to pay for content, outside of Pro. But, it is increasingly clear that readers are more willing than we once thought to pay for content they value and enjoy. With more than 300 media companies now charging for online content in the U.S., the notion of paying to read expensive-to-produce journalism is no longer that exotic for sophisticated consumers. This is a very promising, if uncertain, trend in our country,” – the machers at Politico.
We agree. Subscribe to the Dish here!
Politico also ran “sponsored content” on its home page for the first time today. I have to say they’ve done it right. First off, they have a new name for it: “sponsor-generated content.” That’s more honest that just “sponsored content”, it seems to me, because it makes it clear that this has absolutely not been written by the staff of Politico. The by-line is also clearly from a CEO from the National Retail Federation. The delineation of this as advertorial is also clear, on the front-page and the page itself. I’d have a slightly larger font for the disclosure on the actual article, because the headline of the piece overshadows it and readers could easily be fooled.
The content is as lame as an advertorial usually is. But it’s clearly an advertorial. Which has always been my point: not against advertizing as such as a revenue stream for journalism, but against the fusion and confusion of advertizing with journalism.
Old Koch In A New Bottle
You guessed it – sponsored content leads to the Koch brothers’ subsidizing a Buzzfeed night of debates on immigration reform. Like many libertarians, the Kochs are in favor of reform, and are now feeding Buzzfeed’s bottom line in a slightly more enmeshed way than simple advertizing. Event sponsorship is an old and perfectly legitimate, if slightly compromising, source of revenue for journalism. What’s a little worrying is that the Kochs came to Buzzfeed with the idea first. From Buzzfeed’s spokesperson:
We were looking to expand our BuzzFeed Brews series and wanted to do something like this summit for a while. The Koch Institute came to us and were thinking on the same wavelength about doing an event which felt serendipitous. Immigration was the right topic at the right time and we’re just happy it all came together.
The serendipity of it all!
And Now A Message From Buzzfeed
Sponsored Content Pretty Fucking Awesome
If you want to support online journalism that is not thinly-veiled corporate branding, subscribe!
We really are trying to find a business model for online writing and thinking that can stand on its own independent feet, and be able to challenge corporate and government power, without fear or favor. We really do hope that if we succeed, others can follow.
Non-sponsored content may not be as pretty fucking awesome as sponsored content. But it isn’t quite as corrosive. So if you’ve been on the edge of signing up, please take a few moments to help us shift the parameters of the media future a little – for just $1.99 a month. Our success or failure is entirely dependent on you.
Better “Sponsor Content”
Since I’ve bashed the concept as blurring the line between editorial and advertizing, it’s good to see that publishers are beginning to be clearer about the difference. Atlantic Media’s Quartz does a much better job than its predecessors. Take the headline first:
That’s impossible to miss. Better still, the following simple sentence at the end of the piece:
This article is written by Boeing and not by the Quartz editorial staff.
I remain queasy about bringing an ad agency essentially in-house – because Quartz’s marketing department works with corporations to write, conceive and presumably edit their ad copy, which comes perilously close to editorial work. But as long as there is no overlap between the two staffs, marketing and editorial, and there are no lateral moves from one to the other, the perception of corporate control of journalism is mitigated. Not eliminated – I refuse to buy the propaganda that these are simply “better ads” – but mitigated.
Meanwhile, the Grey Lady has done something actually quite interesting and innovative on this front. It already has an app for navigating this bewildering, dense, rude, urine-baked tunnel-warren of a city.
And they could easily have incorporated the new Citibike guide on their app without Citibank actually paying for it. But they got the money from the sponsor and provided a service to local readers on top. I agree with Joshua Benton on this:
It’s a callback to the classic news advertising idea — we assemble the audience, you provide the content, we make a match — in a mobile, apped-up world… And it’s a match that can go both ways: The Times says that Citi Bike’s own iOS and Android apps will be updated this summer to feature … The Scoop’s listings of restaurants, coffee shops, and the like.
The difference, it seems to me, is that this content isn’t really journalism as such. It’s data you could get elsewhere (which bikes are available where, etc.) and, combined with the NYT’s version of Yelp, it’s obviously useful – unlike an editorial from some executive at IBM.