EDITORIAL – ‘Sponsored content’ is a new wrinkle on an old sales pitch

If it’s clearly identified, and provides information of interest, sponsored content can be useful.

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.

About Mel Rothenburger (6011 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

2 Comments on EDITORIAL – ‘Sponsored content’ is a new wrinkle on an old sales pitch

  1. Read this – the first report is a summary from our very own Ralph Adams and is from this March:

    I can see why the proponent prefers to write their own news articles as the actual news is not nearly so rosy! Here is the take home from the first report – but there are several in the link:

    In discussions you have led for the Ministry of Environment Review team, you have
    often challenged as to answer the question, ”so what?”. This is my attempt to do so. I
    have tried to condense all the hundreds of documents and arguments that have been
    part of the review process (which has now been underway for almost 6 years) into the
    information that I believe the residents of Kamloops and the decision makers most need
    to be aware of in order to make decisions regarding the proposed mine.

    • The Ajax mine review included one of the most comprehensive and complex dispersion
    modelling projects ever undertaken in BC, certainly the most complex for
    a proposed mine. However, even after all the efforts of the proponents and the
    review teams, there is still great uncertainty in the output of the dispersion models.

    • The uncertainty arises from three areas: the uncertainty inherent in using a dispersion
    model which uses greatly simplified approximations of physical processes,
    the uncertainty in the amount of pollutants emitted from the various sources on
    a mine, and the the way in which the emission factors are applied. The last two
    sources of uncertainty are the likely much larger than the first.

    • The use of constant emission factors rather than factors which change over time
    to reflect changing conditions are likely to result in overestimates during winter
    and underestimates in summer.

    • The modelling is considered to be most accurate for longer averaging periods. In
    this case case the uncertainty is least for the magnitude and location of annual
    averages predicted by the model, higher for the daily statistics, and highest for the

    • In the modelling and reporting, annual and daily (24 hour) values were emphasised
    as ecosystem health and human health objectives are based on these averaging
    periods. Short term dust events are likely to occur under dry summer
    conditions. These are common at other mines and similar facilities. It is unlikely
    that these events will have a significant effect on air quality statistics as they are so
    short-lived, but they will be noticeable and are considered a significant nuisance
    by the public.

    • It is likely that the PM2.5 emission factors and predicted ambient concentrations
    are overestimates. This is due to overestimates of the proportion of PM2.5 in haul
    road dust in the formulas used to estimate the haul road emission factors. The
    modelling also used estimates of PM2.5 in truck exhaust based on older diesel
    engines. If newer tier 4 engines are used at the mine site this will reduce PM2.5
    . This does not apply to the larger particulate size fractions PM10 and TSP.

    • Much of the modelling is based on the assumption that watering and other mitigation
    measures applied to the haul roads will limit dust to 10% of the level without
    mitigation (this is equivalent to a 90% mitigation efficiency). The proponent has
    not been able to supply convincing evidence to show that this is possible in the dry
    environment at the site. The model was subsequently run at mitigation efficiencies
    of 80%, 70% and 0%. The 0% level was done to determine worst case results if all
    mitigation on haul roads was lost. The results showed that as mitigation efficiency
    dropped the predicted concentrations increased rapidly and the proportion of the
    dust from the haul roads increased dramatically. At 70% mitigation the model
    results showed that 24 hour average PM10 levels reached 150 µgm-3 in the Aberdeen
    area. This value compares to levels of 70 to 160 µgm-3measured in North
    Kamloops at the Mayfair Street air station. Mitigation of haul roads is likely to be
    critical if the proposed mine goes into operation.

    • The proponent has been clear that they consider the 0% mitigation scenario to be
    hypothetical and not plausible. This is based on the assumption that mitigation
    of the haul roads would never fail for long enough for the surface to dry (several
    hours) and either a wind-storm occur to entrain the dust and carry it towards
    Kamloops, or a period of calm winds and poor dispersion allow values to build
    up. If this did occur, the model predicts hourly average values in Aberdeen of
    1000 µgm-3. Again, this indicates that mitigation of haul road will be critical if the
    mine goes into operation.

    • Given the large uncertainties in model output, a logical conclusion would be that,
    rather than rely on the model predictions, robust and reliable monitoring and mitigation
    plans be developed that can be relied on to prevent adverse effects due to
    the operation of the mine. I think it important to note that this strategy carries risk.
    This strategy is based on the assumption that any issues that arise during the
    life of the mine could be resolved with additional mitigation measures; however,
    there may be issues where no practical or economically feasible solution can be
    found. We must be aware that not all dusting events and exceedances can be
    fully mitigated, all of the time. If the mine goes ahead the development of the
    monitoring and mitigation plans will be critical and are likely to require the most
    comprehensive, complex and expensive monitoring and mitigation systems that
    have been attempted for any mine in BC.

  2. Considering what is at stake here, “sponsored content” is another highly questionable trick from the promoter facilitated by selfish interests.

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