Caveat Emptor, Online: Looking Out for Sponsored Content
In a previous life as an editor for a couple different publications that covered the broadcasting and cable business, it became part of the job to keep an eagle eye on the advertising staff when it was selling advertorial pages.
In a nutshell, they hated to put the word “advertisement” on top of the copy in a point size larger than the fine print on a prescription bottle. They actually didn’t want to use the word at all and would have liked to use the phrase “special supplement” or almost any other descriptor that didn’t have to include the “A” word.
There were bitter arguments about this, and attempts to fool the editorial brigade, and a lot of indignant stewing when somebody on the editorial side would tell the ad staff that a “special supplement” was far, far way from an “advertisement.” Well, fine, the ad department would say, that supplement is worth thousands of dollars, and so, please, shut up.
One of the companies I worked for sent out an actual memo—I think it was even on paper—announcing its firm support of rules that made fuzzy advertorials verboten. It appeared to us that the company had violated its principles about weekly at one or some of its many publications. That rule was so consistently disobeyed editors would bring it up as a document only because it was an easy way catalog all the ways the ad staff was about to violate it.
More benign, by a lot, many years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times turned down an advertiser that wanted to frame with a border in its corporate color the agate-size box scores that always ran as a full page in the sports sections and include a logo and brand-specific title for it (like the old Camel News Caravan did in the early days of TV newscasts). To me that sounded just fine. To the sports staff and others, it didn’t—that agate was journalism, they said--and the paper turned down the arrangement. It was for a lot of money.
Obviously, that was a different time.
Right now, a newspaper Web site in a city a with a bad football team, the team runs a small ad near sports stories that says the article is “sponsored” by the team. But it is the paper’s regular coverage. The team is a Web page sponsor like Ford or Procter & Gamble could be. But many readers assume the team creates the stories, or at least approves them. And these days given the financial state of journalism, it’s not such a cynical assumption.
Online video is now in love with the idea of native content, which at its best would seem to be smart and not devious advertising and its worst would seem to be designed to fool people. As more and more advertisers recognize that YouTube and social networks are great places to put messages that don’t seem like commercials, or realize they can have online posters who are paid to drop a good word about a product here or there, viewers have more reason to be wary than ever before. How much would it take to turn online video and advertising into a disreputable forum that thrives on selling digital baloney?