Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, thinks it has a way to bring some ethical clarity to a shadowy area of media money-making that its fans believe might help the news business out of its financial distress.
The topic is sponsored content, the catchall term for paid messages that are tricked out to downplay or conceal the fact that they’re paid for. When such ads were camouflaged to blend with the editorial environment in which they were arrayed, they were called advertorial; now they’re “native advertising.”
Sponsored content also takes the form of Tweets from a consumer products firm like Samsung that go out under a respected banner, like the Associated Press or social media networks like Facebook.
The category is broad, and comprises product placement too, which is when products are deliberately mentioned in otherwise innocent items, and what Edelman calls “paid co-creation.” That’s an arrangement where the sponsor accepts an arms-length relationship with the content, and lets the media outfit create, say, a special section on a subject dear to its heart, while supposedly refraining from any meddlesome tinkering with the actual content.
Whatever its form, sponsored content traditionally carried a taint: It wasn’t especially honest. You, as a reader, were encouraged to accept the advertisement for weight-loss supplements that looked like an article as if it was a real article. You, as a viewer, were meant to believe that Cap’n Crunch was on the Sopranos’ breakfast table because Carmela put it there, not because the scriptwriters were bribed.
Sponsored material hijacked the look and harvested the credibility of its editorial neighborhood to give itself a persuasive heft it wouldn’t otherwise have.
That was when it was just another form of advertising. But now the public relations business wants a piece of the action, and PR people, as the Edelman paper suggests, are picky when it comes to messaging. Their stock in trade isn’t “paid” media, it’s what they call “earned” media—earned, in that the content they normally peddle is published only because PR people have done their jobs, pitching journalists successfully on generally truthful stories that their clients want told.
PR people sometimes get a bad rap, but the good ones don’t deceive, and now, because they want to expand into the business of paid media, they want sponsored content cleaned up.
The Edelman paper is subtitled, “A broader relationship with the U.S. news media,” and its author, chief content strategist Steve Rubel, starts with the severe problems the news business faces: online ad rates have cratered; display ads aren’t working; subscription plans don’t pull in enough money. The result: “Many publishers are now open to turning content that’s created or curated by corporations into a new form of advertising.”
Such legacy mainstays as Forbes.com, like online native sites BuzzFeed, Mashable and Business Insider, already offer venues where companies can post their messages without submitting to independent editorial judgment.
And that kind of substantive messaging, unlike the jingles and gimmickry brands use in their advertising, has historically been the work of PR counsel, not ad agencies.
Rubel argues more sponsored content might save the media financially, and offers some principles under which this could be done ethically: If paying relationships were clearly disclosed, if the PR people who decide which media to buy aren’t also the ones pitching stories for that client, and if paying clients aren’t promised gentle handling in the news coverage as a quid pro quo.
The backstory here is that it puts the PR business on a collision course with the incomparably bigger and richer ad industry—the two, Lewis D’Vorkin writes, are “ready to rumble” over this alluring new market.
But regardless of who profits, what about the claim that Edelman’s strictures would create a less unsavory form of sponsorship, without the furtiveness of crypto-advertising, crafted to deceive?
The Edelman recommendations are decent enough, but the problems it solves are easy ones and, beyond those, as Bob Garfield told Rubel on NPR’s On the Media, it offers “pieties that ignore the basic structural problems of advertorial.”
Moreover, to consumers who wonder what they can believe, the emerging model of media content is bewildering. The differences in format and presentation between paid messaging and content produced by people exercising independent editorial judgment are getting almost impossible to discern. (Pick up a copy of Wired magazine, which is wonderfully designed, and try to identify the ads.)
Accelerating the push toward more sponsored content will only deepen that confusion and intensify mistrust among thoughtful readers and viewers. I used to deplore this; now I fear that in the near-total absence of resistance from the news business, it’s irreversible. This may not be the media world we want, but it sure looks like the one we’re going to get.