Our spirited discussion about advertising with Lewis D’Vorkin yesterday reminded me that I’ve wanted to scratch the itch of sponsored content for a few weeks. Happily, the New York Times sanctioned such discussions the week before last, when it discovered – in much the same way Columbus discovered America, I guess – the controversy over this growing form of advertising.
In truth, the controversy’s been simmering for more than a year. And that’s as it should be. Because, done improperly, sponsored content threatens the only thing that old and new media alike really have to sell – and that’s credibility.
First, let’s define the terms: sponsored content is exactly what it sounds like – a story, a photo, a chart, a video directly sponsored by an advertiser. They can be written and edited by the sponsor or by the outlet’s staff on behalf of the sponsor. On this everyone agrees. It’s not much different from the concept of “advertorial” in the old media world: a piece of print content, often an insert, sometimes a page or two of ROP, prepared by or in cooperation with the advertiser and clearly marked as such.
Notice I’ve italicized “clearly marked as such.” That’s because this is where the agreement on sponsored content begins to break down these days. In the old media world, the marking would take the form of a narrow banner at the top of the page that said “advertorial” or “advertising.” Papers took pains to insure that readers were further tipped off by fonts, headline and layout styles that differed visibly from those employed in the news pages.
Why did papers go to the trouble? First, because they aware of the eternal tension between advertisers and news organizations. Advertisers, naturally, want to get their messages across to consumers with the least possible amount of mediation. And, if they can, they also seek to appropriate some of the news organization’s credibility by making their message resemble news content as much as possible.
This is undeniable. Some of most brutal battles I had with my colleagues in advertising were over their requests that advertorial be made to look a little less like what it was, and a little more like news content. The nadir of this approach was the infamous grapefruit diet ad and others like it that some newspapers, including mine at the time, published in the ‘90s and 2000s. That was one fight I lost.
Forbes handles sponsored content well. If the banner designating it isn’t entirely intelligible, it is large, and there’s a clickable “what’s this?” link that explains it all very clearly. But I can’t say the same for Mashable, Buzzfeed and some other websites, where the game seems to be to cater to advertisers by giving them what they so badly wanted from newspaper advertorial back in the day – as little distinction between it and news content as possible.
Yes, it’s a new digital day, and a much more challenging environment than in the glory days of old media. But one thing hasn’t changed. Readers still value credibility highly when it comes to news websites. And advertisers want to be part of a site in part because it’s credible. For online news executives to squander this with vague justifications such as “content is content” and “readers don’t care where content comes from” is to sell, like Esau, their birthright for a mess of pottage.