An ArmchairMayor editorial by Mel Rothenburger.
THE PUBLICATION of so-called ‘Sponsored Content’ by Kamloops This Week featuring the proposed Ajax copper mine has raised the hackles of a few people, who say it’s nothing more than paid advertising.
Yes, it is. There’s nothing wrong with media trying to make a buck, depending on how they do it. News columns have always been a tempting target for advertisers and ad salespersons because there’s an impression that they get more attention and have more credibility than display advertising or flyers.
I’ve long argued that there’s ample evidence to refute that, and that advertising clients should have more confidence in their ability to inform and sell through the normal advertising channels.
Be that as it may, I could not count the number of times, in the old days, that I would march seething into the ad manager’s office demanding to know why an ad had been made up to look exactly like a news story, and without the requisite “Advertising Feature” label to warn readers.
The standard reply was, “Oops, sorry about that, it won’t happen again.”
Advertorials, or advertising features, have been around since I can remember. There were some basic rules: the advertorial had to be clearly labeled as such; the reader had to be clear on who was paying for it; and the type fonts and design had to be easily distinguished from those used in news columns.
These days, especially in online publishing, those distinguishing characteristics have been, if not lost, certainly muddied. Online sponsored content often bears a striking resemblance to news content, and it’s not always abundantly clear to the reader that somebody has paid to have it published.
Sponsored content, or “sponsor content” or “branded content” or “native advertising” (the latter a reference to the publishing environment, not ethnicity) started out with honourable intentions. The very best sponsored content today continues to live up to those expectations, which include the creation of paid content matching the editorial standards of news content and providing useful information to readers not necessarily directly promoting a product or service.
That’s a lot of words to try to explain it, but here’s an example. A shoe store might pay for sponsored content advising readers on the best types of footwear for walking, running, or working. This is useful stuff to know. But the content wouldn’t say, “Come and buy shoes at our store.” It would mention the store as the sponsor, but the objective would to be build brand awareness and some loyalty, not to advertise a shoe sale.
Another example might be a bicycle shop, which could publish information, written in news-article style, about the best cycling routes around the city or region. It wouldn’t be about the attributes of a brand of bicycle.
Again, clearly identifying that it’s been bought and paid for, and by whom, is important. If the disclosure is clear, disguising the ad content to look like news content may be irksome, but less problematic.
This whole issue of the blurring of advertising and news content is fascinating and complex. For example, one study has showed that only a small fraction of readers is able to identify the difference.
So, when you see sponsored advertising, and know what it is, it’s probably doing its job properly. But run through a checklist the next time you’re in doubt: Is it clearly labeled as paid-for content? Is the client clearly identified? Does it look too much like just another news story? Is the content useful and factual, or is it simply promoting a client’s product or service without adding value?
Then decide whether it’s being done the way it should be. And have fun out there.