More sponsored content masquerades as real content

wolf in sheepskin

Next time you read a post by your favorite blogger on your favorite website, watch out. It may be well-disguised advertising you’re reading, according to a September 6 Advertising Age report.

Faced with low readership of, and response to, online display ads, advertisers have taken more and more to sponsored content. Sponsored posts are something like magazine advertorials, but more heavily disguised to look like real ones.

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

And now, that media universe is getting even harder and more misleading.

In the past, writes Michael Sebastian, “[m]any publishers embracing sponsored content defend[ed] the integrity of their ad/edit walls by creating in-house teams apart from their newsrooms to produce content on behalf of advertisers.”

BuzzFeed, for example, has a 40-person creative team to create branded content but keep it away from the editorial side. “The Edit team needs independence to cover news and entertainment objectively, and the Creative team needs to focus on the needs of our brand and agency partners,” a spokeswoman emailed. “For BuzzFeed, as it’s been for the news media for over a hundred years, a wall between these teams is what is most effective.”

But now, those walls are a-tumblin’ down.

[I]n most cases, a publisher will give marketers a menu of editorial topics that the marketer can then tailor in some way. Instead of assigning these stories or videos to someone on the marketing side of things, they enlist editorial staffers to produce the content…[P]ublishers — such as Mashable and Mental Floss — are allowing their editorial staffs to write stories and produce videos for advertisers

And believe it or not, they’re doing it all for you.

Not to con you into reading advertising, but to give you “a more authentic experience.”

Funny they should pick that adjective. According to my dictionary, “authentic” means “of undisputed origin, genuine.” And a post that disguises its origins as being wholly from the bylined author to push sales points from an advertiser is neither.

  • At Mental Floss, for example, owner and co-founder Will Pearson claimed that having editorial talent shill for advertisers somehow benefits readers because the disguised ads’ style and tone of voice match the regular content’s.  So when the magazine’s editor-in-chief live-blogged from the US Open about the intersection of data and sports like tennis for sponsor IBM, he was just doing unsuspecting readers a big favor.
  • Over at Mashable, chief strategy officer Adam Ostrow told Ad Age, a branded content team gives advertisers a list of topics the newsroom wants to cover, and advertisers can “tweak” the choices. “[I]f they’re looking to reach a specific type of consumer, or if there are topics they do or don’t want to be around, we’ll make tweaks to what they’re doing thematically,” Ostrow said. Despite this clandestine process, he maintained that keeping advertisers at physical arm’s length from editorial staff somehow maintains the newsroom’s integrity. This is like saying that a spy who passes off stolen secrets by dead drops instead of brush passes really isn’t spying.
  • Fobbing off ad content as editorial content isn’t limited to smaller, newer, publishers. As “added value” for a larger ad buy, Conde Nast Details magazine used its editorial photographers to shoot nine of their editorial bloggers modeling fashions from Gucci, Prada and other advertising designers’ fall collections. The pictures will run on the contributors’ individual blogs and well as the Details aggregation page and Details’ Facebook page. Many, but not all, of the bloggers were able to keep the clothing.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with good, honest advertising. But advertising so heavily disguised as editorial content, written by news writers in the publication’s style and tone of voice, with only the smallest of type at the bottom to reveal its true nature, is neither good nor honest.

That’s bad enough. But not as bad telling you that you’re being conned in the interest of giving you a realer, more authentic reading experience.

Make your advertising more effective. Visit

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *