If you ask just about any reporter what they think of advertorials – those newspaper ads disguised to look like regular editorial copy – they will scoff and say something unprintable. And with good reason: It turns out that advertorials were brought to Earth 75 million years ago by an evil ruler of a Galactic Confederacy.
Okay, I might be mixing that up with the creation myth of Scientology. Allow me to explain my confusion.
On Monday, The Atlantic website carried a short puff piece about the supposedly impressive year enjoyed by Scientology in 2012. There were a half-dozen turgidly written paragraphs, followed by a photograph and brief description of each of the 12 new Scientology churches opened around the world last year. At the top, in small type embedded within a yellow banner, the piece was identified as "SPONSOR CONTENT." At the bottom, a notice that the article was "presented by the Church of Scientology." But a casual reader could have easily assumed it was just another article on the Atlantic site that carried the same implied imprimatur as all of the other editorial content.
It was not only a terrible piece of writing, it was also seen as a naked piece of propaganda. The Atlantic pulled it in less than 12 hours, replacing it with an impressive mea culpa that began, "We screwed up" and concluded with the promise: "We're working very hard to put things right." The publication further explained that it had not properly considered how certain content in "new forms of digital advertising" might be perceived by readers. "It's safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand."
Newsrooms across the land are experiencing similar convulsions, albeit behind closed doors rather than in full, embarrassing view of the world. In the past year, sponsored posts – that is, stories paid for and written by advertisers or their agencies rather than members of an editorial staff – have become one of the few bright spots for web publishers, particularly as rates for old-fashioned banner ads have kept plummeting.
The hot property Buzzfeed.com has said that much of its profitability is due to such content. On Huffington Post, "sponsor-generated posts" are given prime placement, reflecting their importance in the business model. "These types of programs are becoming part of almost every [advertising] pitch," Brad Cressman, the head of content for AOL Canada, the parent of Huffington Post Canada, told me this week.
Even legacy news organizations are getting into the game in a frantic search for revenue. Last week, The Associated Press began sending out sponsored tweets on behalf of advertisers, included Samsung and Acura. Though the ads were marked clearly in bold letters with "SPONSORED TWEET," people threatened to unfollow the @AP Twitter feed if the practice continued. (It has, but judiciously so: Only about 11 such tweets have been sent, amid hundreds of others about real news.)
Advertorials may not be 75 million years old, but they have certainly been around long enough for most readers to be able to identify them. In print, there are familiar design cues, such as a frame around the text or a different typeface font, as well as a label that identifies something as a Special Information Feature. But there isn't yet a universally recognized set of cues in digital media. And, given the way many readers consume stuff online, scanning articles on tiny screens, simply sticking a label at the top or bottom of an article won't do the trick.
To add to the confusion, most legacy publishers in Canada have increased the amount of what they call sponsored content or custom content: articles (in print and online) that are written by members of the editorial staff or freelancers, but financially supported by an advertiser. Even within newsrooms, there is confusion about whether this provokes editorial compromises. (That's on top of other issues that can rupture trust with readers: On the same day The Atlantic published its Scientology ad, a reporter for CNET quit in protest after its parent company, CBS, prevented the tech site from giving an award to a company with which CBS is in litigation.) Readers can be forgiven, then, for wondering about who is pulling whose strings.
Which is why all publishers – in print and digital formats – need to stop being cutesy about who is paying for what, and why. Most readers don't begrudge news organizations from making money; but they won't be readers for very long if they feel it is their trust that's being sold.