A few years ago, an excellent article appeared in a major industry publication that one of our clients advertises in regularly. The article not only mentioned our client’s flagship product but it did so favorably, even comparing it positively to competitive products. Grateful for the positive coverage and the high quality of the article, we worked with the publication to develop a client-specific reprint of the piece, which in turn was distributed at a major trade show.
One of our client’s key competitors saw this reprint at that trade show and became infuriated. Why, you may ask? As it happened, the article had been written by a nurse whom the competitor had paid. It was essentially, they felt, their intellectual property, and the fact that the publication had allowed our client to not only reprint the piece but to alter it flummoxed the competitive company. Unfortunately for the company in question, they had not properly divulged that the content was paid content, and thus they did not really have a leg to stand on. In an effort to make their “content” more readily accessible to a broad audience, they had sacrificed their strong claim to what they felt was their intellectual property.
All of this happened in regards to an article that appeared in print. Now, the world of content has become even more complex. Consider the case of The Atlantic, a publication, now available digitally as well as in print, whose existence spans longer than a century. On January 14, 2013, as Slate.com reported, The Atlantic’s homepage consisted, above the fold, of three things. Two of them were articles about scientology. The third item, with a small “sponsored content” label, was a very positive report on how Scientology had fared in 2012. Who sponsored that content? The Church of Scientology. The Poynter Institute, “a school that exists to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism,” notes some of the ethical dilemmas this editorial decision raised, including how the comments on the sponsored content were handled.
Beyond the written word, sponsored content can also become a hairy issue on something as seemingly straightforward as a Google Hangout. In the July 23rd edition of On the Media, co-host Bob Garfield describes how he was asked to participate in a panel for HuffPostLive regarding how luxury car companies are performing in terms of effectively reaching their audiences. Only after the show had started was Garfield informed that the segment was being sponsored by Cadillac and that one of Cadillac’s representatives was also on the panel. Garfield, as he notes in his show, was disgusted.
The marketing world is certainly abuzz with “content marketing” these days, but very significant ethical questions are being left unanswered in the vacuum of useless advice like, “Write stories that are awesome.” Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital, who appears on the previously referenced On the Media segment, notes that while companies want to benefit from offering content in the correct context, publishers also know that if you highlight that the content was paid for, people may not be as likely to click. One might suggest that sponsored content or “native advertising” as it is sometimes called, is almost like starting a blog post with a giant “buy from us now” banner ad.
Rubel and Garfield also debate other ethical questions where sponsored content is concerned. Part of what people found troubling about the Atlantic’s sponsored content is that it seemed to meld seamlessly with regular editorial content, making it difficult to discern what was real content and what was not. We are seeing this in the print world as well, where advertisements are in some cases increasingly mimicking the look of that publication’s editorial. Additionally, there are now opportunities to customize e-newsletters using a publication’s masthead and email database (the publications deploy these so advertisers do not have access to the entire circulation). Are these customized e-newsletters in a way a betrayal of those who opted in for a specific kind of content?
We do not have any solutions for these dilemmas as we write this. Positioned as we are as a liaison between our clients (advertisers) and publishers, we can see the pros and cons of sponsored content from both sides. We are also acutely aware that many companies no longer believe traditional advertising works, and we know many publishers are struggling to remain in business. On the surface, sponsored content seems like a win-win for all parties. However, there are clearly key questions that are simply not getting enough attention. It is time to start getting down to the nitty gritty where “content marketing” is concerned. Don’t you think?
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