And now, a word against our sponsor

By Jack Shafer
March 8, 2013

The Washington Post‘s website joined the sponsored-content stampede early this week with the introduction of its BrandConnect Web product, making it the first major U.S. newspaper to embrace sponsored content, according to Digiday. Other high-profile Web publishers selling sponsored content include Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, BuzzFeed, Slate, Cheezburger, Techmeme and The Atlantic. Meanwhile, Fortune magazine is creating Fortune-branded content “for marketers to distribute on their own platforms,” AdWeek reports.

Also known as native advertising, the current wave of sponsored content on the Web can resemble the advertorial sections you’re familiar with — the ponderous Russia Beyond the Headlines Today and China Daily pages in the print editions of the Post and the New York Times, which nobody reads, and those sections in glossy magazines you automatically skip. Or, it can look remarkably like the content the site already produces. BuzzFeed has created pages for Virgin Mobile, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Dell, the Nevada Commission on Tourism and General Electric that could pass for its standard pages as they use jokes to “subtly weave in the values of the brand,” as the Wall Street Journal reported last October. BuzzFeed sponsored content costs about $20,000 for five or six “articles,” reports Digiday.

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

The Wall Street Journal reports that an estimated $1.56 billion worth of BuzzFeed-style sponsorships will be sold this year, so the rush to created sponsored content is not a fool’s errand. But after stuffing myself with every example of sponsored content I could find this morning, I found myself nodding in agreement with All Things D reporter Peter Kafka, who recently wrote a column titled ” ‘Sponsor Content’ Doesn’t Fool Anyone Except Advertisers.” The first example of BrandConnect in the Post — “Mobile Revving Up Rural Economies” — couldn’t possibly have hoodwinked the client, wireless trade association CTIA or anybody else. You’d have to be an idiot to mistake it for a Post story, or for something you need to read. Unlike the BuzzFeed sponsored content, the CTIA sponsored content contains no sugar. It’s a heaping helping of salt that’s been salt-cured.

You can smell the desperation when nosing about in sponsored content. Publishers know that banner advertising doesn’t work for their clients — as the Journal notes, banner-ads’ share of Web advertising is shrinking — and they must devise new advertising forms to attract ad revenue.

But as The Atlantic[r3]  learned in January after running a Scientology ad that looked too much like regular Atlantic  fare, sponsored pages carry a potential downside that’s greater than traditional “proximity advertising.” Proximity ads place commercial messages next to editorial copy, but they’re boxed and printed in such a fashion (non-editorial typefaces, for example) to reduce the chance that readers will confuse ads with news. It’s equally important to advertising-supported journalism that the news not be confused with the ads that run nearby, a point Benjamin Franklin made in his advertising manifesto in his 1731 “Apology for Printers.” Franklin held — and most publishers continue to hold — that the controversy raised in news stories is 1) desirable, 2) should not be held against advertisers and 3) that the content of advertisement should not automatically be held against the newspaper publishing them.

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. (In The Atlantic‘s defense, it should be noted that it ultimately conceded that it “screwed up” the presentation of its advertisers message and promised to do better in the future.)

The Atlantic debacle hasn’t stilled the enthusiasm of Web publishers for sponsored content. Lewis DVorkin of Forbes, an early promulgator of sponsored content, continues to bang his drum for it. He claims 20 partners (SAP, UPS, Harris Bank, et al.) for Forbes‘s “BrandVoice.” It’s enough to make you barricade yourself behind Orwell’s collected works when DVorkin approvingly quotes his chief revenue officer’s quip about BrandVoice: “It’s not an ad, it’s thought leadership.”

No, Lewis. If money moved from the client’s hand to that of Forbes, and Forbes posted the client’s copy, it’s an ad.

What Web publishers fear most, I guess, is that as the banner-ad revenue fades and Web ad-rates fall, they must board the sponsored content express now, before advertisers will start to disintermediate them by produce their own entertaining, branded content, as BMW, McDonald’s and Volkswagen have. This terror of being left behind, I surmise, is what drove The Atlantic into posting its lampoonable Scientology advertorial.

I may be an editorial-advertising radical, but 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?

******

Who the hell was the wag who said, “A newspaper is nothing but an advertisement with a news story printed on the back”? I know I read it somewhere but can’t remember. [Addendum: 5:35 p.m. Columbia Journalism Review intern @petersterne tracked down the original quotation, which is from H.G. Wells. He wrote, "Modern newspapers have been described, not altogether inaptly, as sheets of advertisements with news and discussions printed on the back."] Send the answer to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed contains only advertisements for myself. (Norman Mailer said that.) Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO:A man walks past a billboard advertising Jaguar in New Delhi February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

8 comments

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The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald both have sponsored-content sites.

See here:

http://bit.ly/YRLuWD

and here:

http://bit.ly/10jboWt

Posted by SneakAdtack | Report as abusive

Pleased to see you mention Herb Schmertz, who many of your younger readers (under 50??) might not know. Those ads were well written, succinct, aptly placed–and unambiguously from Mobil. But I read them regularly, sometimes agreed, sometimes not. I think they make for a very good model for sponsored editorial.

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive

Well done Jack! Your opinion is heartening. Keep on fighting the good fight, please.

Posted by UnderRated | Report as abusive

So, I should just stop reading the news even on Rueters? Yes, normally you can spot a paid piece. But I don’t like being played for a fool, so I’ll just stop reading.
Good bye Reuters!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Agree with all written but also understand the business dilemma for newspapers. If banner ads don’t work (they don’t) then what? How to stay in business? As Shafer points out sponsored content not the way. One problem might be the advertisers need for ROI…with sponsored content PR team can run to the boss and say “look we got our message in the post and it looks just like one of their stories — how’s that for ROI!” But as Shafer shows its a false positive that fools no one and is likely read by less. Thus in reality no ROI at all. Back to the drawing board for advertisers and publishers alike it seems…

Posted by hoops2 | Report as abusive

Agreed, well done sir and this from a reader who more than once has takes umbrage with some of your other thought bombs.

Consumers are rarely as gullible as the Madison Avenue types would make us out to be so bring on the new ad forms and let’s see who’s the wiser.

I bet we can still recognize the quacking!

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

Jack, good points are made in this article, but the native advertising/editorial divide issue is very over dramatized and generalized… and there was no internet in the times of George Orwell or Benjamin Franklin… the game has changed, digital media is adapting. The whole point of sponsored content/native advertising is that it is a type of advertisement/content that integrates uniquely with THEIR website and delivers a personalized message to that unique audience. Meaning that every style should be relatively different, so generalizing this as everyone is doing it either exactly like The Atlantic or Buzzfeed doesn’t make sense. Tumblr is doing it completely differently, Forbes does it differently (although the CFO quote: BrandVoice: “It’s not an ad, it’s thought leadership.” comment is rather pretentious…), it all depends on their curation of advertisers and the sponsored content to create an informative yet relevant context to the reader if they are interested in that type of product or service. Also not having a clear divide is ILLEGAL. So if the publisher is in fact plopping in their sponsored content and as the same type face with a little misleading 6pt. “Sponsored Content” at the bottom, they will have more issues than just pissed off readers, the FTC may come knocking on their door. Point being, this has to be looked at on a case by case basis, and it isn’t all that bad for everyone in most cases. Personally, I would rather have the option to click on an advertorial on Forbes for example, for a relevant business service I may be interested in, than deal with their annoying pop ups or video banner ads that block an editorial article every time I click on a new one.

Posted by CliffB | Report as abusive

Unfortunately CapnCrunch, the vast majority of the population will not know the difference. They will not see the slow steady change from independent news and opinions to nothing more than corporate press releases. They really won’t know the difference. I think it is a sad time for the “Media” industry. Their world is being significantly affected by technology and the struggles to survive often show the worst side of an organization. Fooling the people for money is now justifiable. What a shame.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive