Sponsored content? Who’s fooling whom?

Life if tough all over. Especially for those in the biz formerly known as newspaper publishing. Under pressure to keep the doors open, even the Grey Lady herself is selling content like a hooker on a street corner.

The debate over sponsored content isn’t new. And so long as paid editorial content is clearly labeled, maybe I shouldn’t care. But I do. Because once the wall between advertising and journalism is breached, there’s no going back.

It was this sponsored story from the Northeast Ohio Media Group, aka, the Plain Dealer, that has me wondering how many readers accept these sponsored items as legitimate news. BTW, this story — first published on October 20, 2014 — appeared under yesterday’s “Latest Stories” heading. It was the only sponsored story on the list.

The story appears to be accurate and carries value for readers concerned with college tuition costs. But it isn’t breaking news, but rather a repackaging of an NPR story that aired months ago. Yes, the item does carry (in fairly small type) the “sponsored content” label. But it’s a label that’s easy to miss and one that does NOT identify the paid sponsor.

On the other hand, it’s a damn good marketing ploy by the local community college, as it trades on the urgency and the credibility of NEOMG’s news operation. But it also taints the credibility of that news operation. And it has me wondering why communicators have to be so sneaky.

Yeah. I’ve been away from the blog for a spell. I’ll tell you about it sometime. 


10 thoughts on “Sponsored content? Who’s fooling whom?

  1. When I was in jschool, we were debating the appearance of advertising on the front page. A simple banner across the bottom with a few sentences. Oy vay. Now we’re talking sponsored content. Hmmmm … sometimes “Paid Advertising” in food magazines is as interesting as the FEATURES. But, hard news … that’s blasphemous.

    Curious if this “trend” is good for public relations? Does it do anything for our credibility?

  2. As long as there’s disclosure and it’s from people I trust, I don’t really have an issue with sponsored content. Let’s face it, we’re sick and tired of bland advertising – so if someone does the legwork to find out who’s relevant to promote a message, and allow them to publish with no conditions attached, I’d much rather have that than some hair gel ad that means squat to me (for obvious reasons). :)

  3. Reading on the web intensifies this “repackaging” of old news (paid for or not). In the last couple weeks, I have clicked on “news” stories that seem current, but when I get around to looking at them — bad habit of opening new tabs on Firefox, yes, I’m a tab hoarder — it turns out they are from months or years ago. Also, it’s hard to go to sites and not see the news-looking postage stamp-sized photos at the bottom of many pages that take one to paid-for postings by other organizations, often down the right hand side on European news sites.

    If I were to be more cynical, I would say “isn’t it all sponsored content at this point?” Duping people into thinking that sponsored content is news is a standard practice, but at least it is (usually) identified, and a much cleaner process than the centuries of more underhanded efforts we all know about — from shady “experts” being quoted to astro-turfing, etc.

  4. Paris, you’re echoing the same concerns I have. And maybe it’s just old-school thinking (not saying you’re old, mind you). Paid advertising has always appeared next to editorial content — oftentimes unrelated content. But there was never a question as to the source of the ad or who paid for it.

    Bottom line, the intent of sponsored content is to trick us into thinking it’s legitimate news. Yeah, OK. It’s labeled some of the time. But as Dewey points out, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between news and ads.

    Danny, you present well the position that responsible content marketers have been espousing for years. And Bob, your cynicism is well placed. Perhaps we are better off with sponsored/labeled content vs. the underhanded techniques publicists have used for more than a century. But in the end, a more transparent process would better serve readers and society as a whole.

    • The thing I’m curious about is where the value exists for those doing the sponsoring. Is it branding? (i.e. Does the college benefit from being associated with an article about tuition costs) Or is it persuasion? (i.e. Does the college financially benefit from the reader’s changing there opinion about tuition costs).

      I am much more okay with the former than the latter – if an organization is just trying to associate themselves with a subject in a smart way, hey, all the best. However, if an organization is trying to make an argument in an almost non-transparent manner, I think that is a separate conversation (one more about ethics than anything).

      • Thanks for dropping by, Jason. Your questions are worth exploring.

        Value for the sponsor would depend on objectives and strategy, I suppose. Assuming Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) is the sponsor of this story, then the content is an ideal fit. It calls attention to an NPR story about the value of community colleges, thus it provides a service to readers who are interested in pursuing higher education while and saving money in the process. CC’s are a tremendous asset and often do a better job teaching basic liberal-education requirements than the 4-year schools. They also tend to offer vocational programs matched directly to community needs. So the story supports Tri-C’s brand while also serving reader needs. Win-win.

        But Tri-C doesn’t spend its marketing dollars solely as a community service. The story contains a prominent link to Tri-C’s application page that features the headline, “I’m ready to get started.” It’s a call to action — also good marketing. But heck, Tri-C should benefit financially from this advertising investment. Otherwise, why do it?

        Like so many ethical issues, this one comes back to the intent of the communicator. Tri-C’s intent is to boost enrollment by demonstrating the value of community colleges. Nothing wrong with that. But by using paid editorial, there is at least some intent, albeit unstated, to trade on the power of third-party endorsement of news — since the story is packaged as journalism and placed in the “Lastest News” listings. (Another benefit worth noting is the value of sponsored content in boosting SE0.)

        The Plain Dealer/NEOMG has the same intent and also benefits financially every time someone clicks on this faux news story.

        Advertising is a financial transaction in which both parties hope to benefit. Question is, do the readers really understand that it’s an ad and not a piece of balanced reporting? (A study referenced in the John Oliver clip posted by Susan suggests that more than half of media consumers can’t discern the difference between news and sponsored content. But I’ve not read the study, so I can’t speak to its validity.)

        Both sides in this debate present tenable ethical arguments, thus intelligent people can arrive at different conclusions.

        • So essentially the argument we’re talking about here is sponsored content as a form of persuasion and whether it is ethical from the vantage point of authenticity, right?

          Technically I believe it to be ethical if it is labeled as sponsored content. That said, I agree there is a spectrum when it comes to authenticity. The more prominent the sponsor is to the reader the more authentic it will be.

          So, in trying to consider all the angles, here’s my final take:

          1. I agree that a sponsored post buried in a “Today’s Headlines” section is not authentic even if it may be technically ethical. As such, a brand shouldn’t do it as authenticity of the brand will be harmed.

          2. If it is in that section and not listed as “Sponsored” in any way, than it is entirely unethical and we should shout at them!

          3. If the sponsored content is clearly labeled as such, and not located where news is typically located, then it might be deemed a good idea for the brand as it is both authentic and ethical.

  5. The sad thing is this: I’m not sure anyone outside of communication pays attention to this trend. I don’t think they pay attention to little labels, and I don’t think they understand that “sponsored content” means that the party who wrote it isn’t an objective or unbiased source (yeah, yeah, I know, even we journos have biases). Successful native advertising, or sponsored content, convinces the audience they are getting objective, unbiased information, when in fact they are consuming carefully constructed marketing messages. I’ll leave you with this lighter John Oliver note on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_F5GxCwizc

  6. Susan: Thanks for that link to the Oliver clip. Had not seen it. Oliver sums up the problem and does a nice job discrediting rationalizations used by those who produce news and those who produce sponsored content.

    Heh. There’s a reason the under-35 generation turns to folks like Oliver and Jon Stewart for their news. They both cut through the B.S.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the arguments of my learned friends and colleagues Danny and Bob. But sponsored content/native advertising requires that the consumer be observant, discerning and intelligent. And we all know that online readers just don’t fit that model.

    But, alas, to survive in the free market the media are selling their assets and their integrity to the highest bidder. And we’re back around to the prostitution analogy.

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