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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