Opinion

Jack Shafer

What’s worse than sponsored content? The FTC regulating it

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2013 17:43 UTC

What’s more dangerous to consumer well-being, sponsored content or the intervention of the Federal Trade Commission? On Wednesday, the agency held a conference, “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content,” to “discuss native advertising,” as the New York Times put it. The event attracted several hundred “advertisers, academics and media executives,” who listened to the agency’s views about native advertising — or sponsored content, infomercial, or advertorial, as some call it — those Web ads that are designed to look like editorial content, not ads.

Many if not most top editorial sites offer sponsored content, including the Washington Post, Huffington PostSlateTechmemeBusiness InsiderForbesBuzzFeed, the Boston Globe’Boston.com, the Atlantic, and others, and the list of advertisers includes such household names as IBM, Jet Blue, Pillsbury, Purina, Columbia Sportswear, Dell, UPS, McDonalds, and BMW. The Times piece acknowledges that it, too, will soon be joining the sponsored content caravan that brought publishers about $1.5 billion last year.

When convening a conference to “discuss” something or other, the FTC (or other regulatory entities) is almost never in pursuit of discussion — any more than a police officer who says he just wants to talk. Such conversational assemblies usually become venues in which the agency can issue a veiled threat, either directly or indirectly, to its targets, instructing them sotto voce that unless they change their ways they’ll suffer the agency’s wrath. The regulatory playbook usually dictates that the agency promise targets that unless they start observing “voluntary” restrictions, the agency will have to request legislative authority to make restrictions mandatory. Nothing can be “voluntary” if somebody is threatening to make it mandatory, but the gambit works nine times out of ten.

The FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez didn’t make the “voluntary” threat, but she didn’t need to, as it was inscribed in her talk.

“While native advertising may certainly bring some benefits to consumers, it has to be done lawfully,” Ramirez said. “By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a non-biased source.” The law gives the FTC the power to police deceptive advertising and marketing, a power that it routinely draws on, so Chairwoman Ramirez alluding to deceptive advertising can be read as a prelude to legal action.

Facebook and the outer limits of free speech

Jack Shafer
May 30, 2013 01:11 UTC

The great thing about the Web is that it has given the opportunity to billions of people, who would otherwise never have had a chance to publish, to express their most urgent thoughts with an Internet connection and a few finger-flicks. It’s also the Web’s downside, as you know if you’ve had the misfortune to encounter a triple-Lutz revolting page during a Google search.

But thanks to the First Amendment, there are few U.S. laws banning expression on the Web outside of posting child pornography, specific physical threats, libel or copyright infringement. So there are few ways to eliminate hostile, ugly, vile, racist, sexist or bigoted speech from its many, many pages.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no recourse should you find content on the Web you disapprove of, as we learned this month when Facebook surrendered to a protest and boycott led by two groups, Women, Action, and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, and activist Soraya Chemaly. They opposed depictions of rape and violence posted by Facebook users and demanded, among other things, the removal of such “gender-based hate speech” from its pages. They also sought better policing by Facebook moderators to block future user-posted content that “trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women.”

And now, a word against our sponsor

Jack Shafer
Mar 8, 2013 21:36 UTC

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.

When advertorial bites back

Jack Shafer
Jan 15, 2013 22:01 UTC

At about noon today, the Atlantic put on a very snug hair shirt, issuing a statement of apology and regret for having posted on its website Church of Scientology “Sponsor Content” yesterday.

The Scientology advertisement, composed by tone-deaf propagandists unable to write a sentence about the church’s alleged worldwide expansion without including a superlative – “unparalleled,” “unrelenting,” “unprecedented” (twice) – was taken down just before midnight after being up for about 11 hours. (See Erik Wemple’s tick-tock.)

A cached version of the Scientology advertorial is preserved on freiz.it, but be forewarned that there isn’t much there to interest you unless you’re an admirer of the church and love to read nice but bland things about it, or you detest Scientology and enjoy nothing better than to have a good laugh at the church’s expense and that of its “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige. It’s really that lame.

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