The Thin Read Line: John Carroll on transparency's downfall and the rise of sponsored content. In this photo, customers browse for magazines and newspapers at a New York newsstand, Jan. 14, 2010. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Once upon a time in America, there was a bright line between advertising and editorial content. There was, in other words, the quaint sense that you had a right to know when you were being advertised to.

No more.

Nowadays, media outlets simply stick everything in a blender and hit purée.

It comes in multiple variations: commerce content, brand journalism, custom content, commerce journalism, and collaborative content. It’s a Brands New World vocabulary, but it all comes down to advertising presented as journalism.

The more media consumers see this “seamless stream of content,” an increasing percentage of which is marketing in disguise, the more likely they’ll be to devalue all the content.

Branded content’s Flavor of the Month is native advertising — marketing material tricked out to look just like the editorial content on a particular website. And the media outlets are unabashed about the intentional confusion they’re creating.

Business and financial news site Forbes recently changed the name of its dedicated content marketing site from AdVoice to BrandVoice, explaining somewhat disingenuously that they want such posts to be seen not as an ad — but as “thought leadership.”

Forbes projects that BrandVoices “partners,” who also buy traditional advertising, will account for 25 percent of the organization’s ad revenue in 2013.

Gossip-mongering website Gawker sells its Sponsored Posts this way: “Inserted directly into the editorial flow, the Sponsored Post lends our voice to your brand so it can directly ‘speak’ to the Gawker Media audiences.”

Gawker founder Nick Denton says he expects at least 10 percent of the company’s 2013 revenue to come from “commerce journalism.” In a recent jobs listing, Denton described it as “a new type of service journalism … that merges writing and product curation.”

Product curation? Somewhere, George Orwell is not laughing.

These ads in sheep’s clothing, meanwhile, have drawn scant criticism in consumer or media circles (The Dish’s Andrew Sullivan being one notable exception).

The loudest protest came in January when published a post paid for by the Church of Scientology. It was so excessive in its praise of the controversial institution, it sparked an immediate firestorm. But much of the backlash was attributable to the sponsor of the post, not the stealth marketing practice itself.

In light of the high revenue potential and low risk of reader disaffection, newspapers are starting to join the branded content groundswell.

The Boston Globe has both print and online versions of its pay-to-play Insights Blog (“Conversations with local business”), while the Boston Herald has State of the Arts, a website where right now 80 percent of the content is supplied by local arts organizations. (The Herald plans to charge them going forward, although it has yet to specify when.)

Now add the Washington Post to the list as well. It has launched BrandConnect, a branded content section that will appear with the label “Sponsor Generated Content.” But the disclosure in the posts themselves is minimal bordering on invisible — a small, gray “AD” buried (sideways!) in the upper left-hand corner. Branded content across the board is more opaque than transparent in terms of disclosure.

But question most media outlets that feature branded content and they invariably position it as a consumer benefit. It’s part of “the changing definition of advertising” because “traditional ads are too intrusive.” So they make it part of a “seamless stream of content” that “adds value to readers’ lives.”

That’s a dodge, of course, and a self-defeating one to boot. The more media consumers see this “seamless stream of content,” an increasing percentage of which is marketing in disguise, the more likely they’ll be to devalue all the content.

Then again, maybe media outlets would be a little less blasé about branded content if more of the public were a little more lathered up about it.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Melanie James

    I think Richard Edelman’s key note address where towards the end he reiterates the need for a clear line between PR/marketing and journalism at the New Media Academic Summit in 2010 nailed this issue on the head. PR will do itself a dis-service by infiltrating journalism – the whole point of having a journalist cover your story is having that “objective” third party endorsement/coverage. Once news and feature journalism are diluted by sponsored content, the value of being in such media diminishes. Link:

  • carolmorton

    I’m not a fan of sponsored content, especially when it’s not transparently labeled and sourced. But it doesn’t serve to idealize the often mushy line between content and advertising in the old legacy print papers. Some sections routinely had a cleaner line than others in the divide between editorial and advertising. Editorial content in the real estate, food, lifestyle and automobile sections often seemed designed to push products and sales and usually avoided investigations of institutions and practices that impinged upon the public good. It’s no coincidence that investigative food reporting has taken off as the powerful influence of grocery advertisers has waned, for example.

  • Pointpanic

    “Public” radio is also guilty of this. I could compile an atlas of de facto commercials passed off as “journalism” ,whether it’s video games, regular reports on the marketing of commercial television, or portraying some fast food founder as an entrepeneurial “hero”. This happens every morning on NPR’s “Morning edition” which features a “business bottom line” plus a “business report” at ten minutes to the hour. And hey NPR never misses a chance to plug Starbucks or mc Donalds.
    PRI’s “Marketplace ” has had more than one story encouraging its listeners to “brand” themselves . But the real kicker was a WBUR program called “Day to Day”(which thankfully is long gone). Are you sitting down? I’ll wait….. OK ,ready? During the primaries,leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Day to Day had a week long feature comparing the candidates to famous brand products. One ,I remember was comparing John McCain to Pepsi because he was “the real thing’. Not only was it trashy political propaganda but like much of “public” radio’s programming these days, it percieves us as passive consumers of goods and services rather than citizens of a democracy who must make informed decisions.

  • Randy C.

    Four decades ago, circa 1975, novelist & guru to prose stylists everywhere E. B. White weighed in on this very issue in his essay in the form of an open letter to the Xerox corporation, because it had sponsored a long article in Esquire by Harrison Salisbury on traveling through America in observance of the upcoming Bicentennial. The eloquence & elegance of Mr. White’s argument not only got Xerox, by their own admission, to shelve further sponsored pieces, but apparently discredited the practice among all other megacorporations as well. But these are different times, w/ blurrier lines between the pursuits of reporting and marketing, and Mr. White is no longer w/ us to help us tell the difference.