Advertising, Journalism — May 6, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Advertising disguised as news

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Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock dives into the hidden but influential world of brand marketing.

Advertisers are buying news articles with the goal of selling something.

Once the province of journalism, news stories, reviews and commentary are increasingly being written by pitchmen, marketers and advertisers. The content is all produced with the goal of selling you something. It looks like a legitimate news story or product review, but in actuality, the story is a product pitch.

The development is a new twist on an old practice. Publishers have long produced marketing related content for a fee. In the past, branded or advertising content was clearly marked as an advertisement. But in the Web world, the old rules have been thrown out. Increasingly, branded content is being fashioned to look like a journalistic editorial product. This trend obviously poses a credibility problem for digital journalists, particularly since some publishers employing this practice also employ digital journalists.

The public, however, has yet to catch on to this trend. Web surfers are sharing information on social media sites with little regard as to whether it is advertising. A recent article on Google Glass technology was shared 2,000 on social media, reports the New York Times. The series was clearly marked as sponsored content leaving one to conclude that it was passed along by people who knew this fact or didn’t care.

Advertising has been blazing new trails for more than decade. The first industry to welcome advertising was entertainment. Product placement has been a staple in TV shows and movies for years. Movies shown in commercial theater often start with a series of advertisements. Stars are often seen holding or using particular products. In the 1994 movie, “The Paper,” actor Michael Keaton more than once struggles with a Coke machine, a prop that is displayed so prominently and used so often that it becomes an annoying distraction to the movie’s storyline.

Developing print editorial stories featuring branded content is new territory for advertisers, particularly the approach being employed compared to the past. It is harder to tell whether the content is a news story or a sponsored advertisement. Publishers, desperate for new sources of revenue, have allowed this change to occur. Advertisers obviously like the change. It gives brands new legitimacy by making the content look as though it was independently produced and sourced.

“Brands are everywhere and brands have now leaked into what has traditionally the editorial space,” eMarketer analyst David Halerman told the New York Times.

The trend toward branded content has become pervasive enough that filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, known for his caustic lampoon of McDonald’s called “Super Size Me,” produced a documentary on the subject in 2011. The movie called, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” was unique in that it was sponsored entirely by advertisers profiled in the film. Advertisers even lined up to finance the $1.5 million film, including Ban deodorant, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, JetBlue Airways, Mane ’n Tail shampoo, Merrell shoes, MovieTickets.com, Old Navy, according to the New York Times.

New York Times writer Tanzina Vega writes that publishers are turning to sponsored content because fewer Web surfers are clicking on banner ads. The Web is awash in ad space, pushing down prices. Typical web ads draw about 10% of the revenue derived from advertisements appearing in a printed newspaper or magazine. As technology evolves, ad rates continue to fall, putting pressure on publishers to seek alternatives to pay for digital journalism.

The result is sponsored slides shows, sponsored pages for a particular company, product or campaign. Some of this sponsored content has gotten media in trouble. The Atlantic has issued an apology for a piece of sponsored content posted in January, praising The Church of Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige. The advertorial, which hailed the Church’s “historic” growth, was pulled later that night.

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