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?
Update: To read the rest of the posts in this thread, go here.