Brands Sneak Paid Advertising Into Online Content

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This article is not a paid advertisement for some product. But, according to an April 7 New York Times report, many others you read could be, without your knowing it.

“Well-known online publications,” they report, “like The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Business Insider all use some form of branded content. A result is a media universe where it is increasingly difficult for readers to tell editorial content from advertising.”

Paid advertising masquerading as editorial content isn’t new to media. For years, print publications have carried advertorials and so-called special advertising sections touting different brands, with the look and feel of the newspaper or magazine’s genuine articles. And for years, television channels have filled unsold late-night time with 30- to 90-minute-long infomercials.

Those were all labeled as such, either with small type saying “Advertisement” at the top or with an audio and video disclaimer at the beginning of the infomercial.

But with this form of marketing – variously called branded content, sponsored content or native marketing – there’s often no such warning. And sometimes when it is identified as advertising when first posted, that identification tends to disappear or blend into the background once the original post is shared on other sites.

“Brands are everywhere, and brands have now leaked into what has been traditionally the editorial space,” said eMarketer analyst David Hallerman, “not just the content, but the look and feel of the content.”

  • A series of Mashable.com technology articles on subjects ranging from the Hubble telescope to modems were paid for by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor chips, for example.
  • The Huffington Post has partnered with advertisers  to sponsor topics like women and children (Johnson & Johnson) or technology (Cisco Systems), where advertorial content and genuine editorial content appear side by side.
  • When The Atlantic posted an online article titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” that talked glowingly about the controversial religion, the page provoked what the magazine called “a wave of constructive criticism” – including Gawker calling it “bizarre, blatant propaganda.” This in spite of labeling as “sponsor content,”
  • Of course Gawker itself is living in a glass house; that site and BuzzFeed “are among the other Web sites that have gained attention for the practice, which places an advertiser’s words and visuals (the content) within the frame of the site,” the Times reported in January.
  • BuzzFeed has carried content from Dunkin Donuts and General Electric on “10 Lifechanging Ways to Make Your Day More Efficient” and “18 People Who Will Not Be Stopped.”
  • For two years, Forbes has been posting sponsored content from about two dozen brands, including articles on small business written by FedEx employees.

Websites who are being paid for brand content on their pages, naturally defend the practice. “It’s not advertising,” says Forbes Media CEO Michael Perlis. “Its about big issues that relate to thought leadership.”

“These are not advertorials,” claims Mashable editor in chief Lance Ulanoff. “I know what an advertorial is. These are pure editorial.”

Unfortunately, many consumers don’t share his expert knowledge. “An article on Google Glass technology was shared almost 2,000 times on social media,” the Times reported. “Readers may not have cared, or known, if it was journalism or sponsored content, although the series was identified as such.”

Maybe online readers are hungering for brand messages disguised as “big issues about thought leadership,” but Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan doesn’t buy that. ““Your average reader isn’t interested in that,” he declares. “They don’t realize they are being fed corporate propaganda.”

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