A couple of days ago The Daily Mail published an inane article about choosing an age-appropriate perfume. It was the same kind of drivel we've seen before; ageist stereotypes with little to no perfume knowledge, and a reference to the study from a couple of years back that suggests that grapefruit scents make the people around us perceive us as younger. Naturally, many of my friends within the perfume community got annoyed and somewhat offended. They shared the post on Facebook and there were a couple of discussions around the subject, comments about mainstream media's inability to discuss perfume intelligently, and general grumpiness over the idea of an "age appropriate" perfume. I was annoyed as well, of course, but the thing that surprised most was that none of my friends pointed out the fact that the article was actually a thinly-veiled advertorial for a bunch of mass market perfumes, half of them by the Lauder Companies. Is it more annoying to be told by a "reporter" that the latest Jo Malone perfume is fresh and young than it is to know that said journalist is merely regurgitating a press release?
This issue has been on my mind a lot lately. Sponsored content is everywhere online, on blogs and on magazine websites. There's a whole category of online publishers who specialize in creating content that is meant to serve brands who pay for it as part of their marketing campaigns. There are new companies that act as the middleman connecting brands and willing bloggers for these "paid opportunities". This is not a new practice and there's nothing inherently wrong with advertorials, but I'm deeply bothered by the fact that readers seem to accept this kind of article on the same level they take blog posts by writers who, like me, will not accept cash for content. Are we all the same to you? Does it even matter?
The Husband hears my gripe about this on a regular basis, but I don't think he fully got it until an event he attended last week that opened his eyes to this specific reality of the online world. When he came home last Friday he told me: "According to Marie Claire, you're doing it wrong". Here's his impressions and thoughts on the subject:
I was at an event last week focusing on business and content strategy companies and publishers can adopt for growth. Both Refinery 29 and Marie Claire Magazine shared some of the secrets to their success, and more specifically, the financial success. The theme was eerily similar: We know our reader demo and what they want. Pay us and we’ll push your messages and products to our audience in a way that they’ll think it's great content and thank us (and you) for it.
We all know that living off banner ads is almost impossible for any publisher as response to traditional digital advertising is in decline. Brands are looking for innovative ways to reach consumers and these tailored experiences and “Native Advertising” as they're sometimes called are the latest trend. If you read a story in an online (and often offline) magazine or blog, how do you know what and who brought this content to life? Did someone pay for this story to appear? Does it matter?
Native Advertising can take many forms. Some more sophisticated than others but at the end of the day, a brand paid for this content to be published. We as consumers have the right to know that. Those “From around the web” links that appear in many mainstream outlets such as People Magazine and CNN are actually paid links, not editorial recommendations. When Marie Claire did a story on how girls really like football it was of course paid for by the NFL. Even the respected Atlantic had to apologize after the Church of Scientology sponsored an article which was not marked as such.
Gaia is getting about a dozen offers a day for “Sponsored stories with content so valuable that your readers will thank you for sharing”. Or not. At least she hopes that her readers appreciate the lack of such content here.
Things have gotten so bad that the FTC is trying to put some guidelines together and the advertising industry is making a go at self-regulating. It’s a good start but far from being sufficient. Consumers deserve to know who paid for a piece of content to be written (wait for it ladies, the NBA is the next big sponsor!). Sites that feature products need to disclose their relationship with the brand. Is it an edit call or a paid inclusion in exchange for ad buy? Content that’s been paid for needs to be clearly marked as such and a disclosure section at the bottom of each article needs to list the exact relationship between the publisher and the subject of the content. We have rules in place to ensure integrity of financial or medical advice. Why not beauty advice?
Big publishers think people do not care very much as long as they rewrite the brands content to sound cool. The lack of backlash and growing readership of these publications worries me that they may be right and we don’t really care.
What do you think? What type of guidelines would you want to see put in place?
Photo by David Burton for Marie Claire, 2011.