Beware of Fake News

December 6, 2013

What do you get when you combine an advertisement with a news story? Those in the industry would say, “An advertorial.” Those who have spent money on advertorials, though, would say, “Not much.”

The advertorial is the illegitimate child of advertising and journalism. It represents the worst of both worlds, as it lacks the credibility of journalism and the effectiveness of advertising. It’s as tacky as an infomercial and generally as worthy of attention as yesterday’s weather forecast.

Like propaganda, the advertorial is dishonest. It represents itself as it wants to be seen, not as it really is, and tries to pass off appearance as reality. But without objectivity, news loses its value. It becomes fake news.

Some call advertorials “native advertising,” a baffling term, since no one would call real news “foreign advertising.” It’s also been called “paid content” or “sponsored content.” Call it what you will, but it doesn’t change what it is. “Journalistic prostitution” would be a more appropriate term, as it provides the illusion of something that’s desirable, but is ultimately unfulfilling.

Yet the advertorial is alive and well, and more ubiquitous than ever.

Advertorials Thriving On the Internet

The transition of news onto the Internet has given new life to the advertorial. Many traditional news outlets have seen profits dwindle and advertorials can provide an additional source of revenue, so even top-tier media like The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal now publish advertorials.

The Internet has also created a new avenue for advertorials by making it possible for anyone to publish. Advertorials can help blogs and online media become profitable.

Even without the Internet, though, advertorials would exist, because they provide a revenue stream for celebrity journalists who are no longer prime-time attractions. The executive director of a nonprofit on whose board I serve was pretty excited to find out that Larry King was interested in producing a story on the organization – until she found out that the story would cost $25,000. Really, Larry? Do you need the money that badly?

Readers of this column are undoubtedly familiar with “The Larry King Show,” but have you ever seen “The Larry King Advertorial Show?” Probably not. You’re unlikely to waste time reading an article that’s labeled “advertisement” and you’re even less likely to watch a TV show that’s promoting some company or organization.

Those who produce advertorials recognize that labeling an advertorial as “advertising” makes it worth very little, so they disguise advertorials as real news, even though doing so is dishonest.

Two financial news sites I pitched recently responded to my e-mails by offering to run online stories about my client – for a price. One offered to run a story for a few hundred dollars, while the other said his prices start at $2,500. In both cases, the sites appeared to be news sites, not sponsored content sites.

It’s America. Anyone is entitled to make a profit. But it’s unethical for fake news to masquerade as real news.

When the lines between real news and fake news blur, credibility suffers. We have celebrities tweeting about their favorite products, without revealing that the only reason they are favorite products is because the celebrities are being paid to tweet about them. Then there are media outlets like Buzzfeed, which mixes sponsored content with its brand of news so thoroughly, the only distinguishable difference is a slightly different background color.

Social media is not only blurring the lines, it’s erasing them. Consider a piece posted on BuzzFeed called, “11 Things No One Wants To See You Instagram.” Instagram may not have caught on as a verb, but the post drew 330,000 impressions. Most views were not on BuzzFeed’s home page, but from people sharing the post on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

So who sponsored the post? Not Instagram and not BuzzFeed, but Virgin Mobile, which was promoting entertainment for sharing on the Virgin Mobile Live website.

So Virgin Mobile proved that advertorials can work – it they’re disingenuous.

Other media that have been more forthcoming about their use of advertorials have, ironically, seen their reputation tarnished. The Atlantic was rightly criticized after publishing an advertorial praising The Church of Scientology. As former Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan put it, “Seriously, that is ad-whoredom of a particularly egregious variety. The Atlantic is now partly sponsored by the Church of Scientology?”

A Better Option

Advertorials are a hard sell, because they have few fans, so many companies that sell them use aggressive marketing tactics.

Alan Furth, who worked for a company selling advertorials, blogged about his experience seeking out naive corporate executives who were not yet familiar with advertorials. Furth wrote that “we scoured the countries searching for them, storming into office buildings, taking advantage of relaxed, unstructured, friendly local cultures to steal 30 minutes of the boss’s time, and walking out with a 25,000 USD ad contract from a small stock brokerage firm that didn’t make a million USD in yearly turnover. Or for that matter, from a truck-manufacturing company that had no exports, no international expansion plans, or any other minimally rational reason for advertising with us.”

Any business considering using advertorials as part of its marketing strategy should consider whether the funds would be better spent elsewhere, such as on a legitimate public relations program. You’re guaranteed to find a better use for the funds.

If your company is so boring it can’t attract the attention of legitimate news media, any advertorials produced about your company will also be boring, whether or not Larry King or some other celebrity is involved.

Some may argue that advertorials are a legitimate marketing tool, but if advertorials are news, they are bad news. They are not going to save journalism. They are more likely to destroy it.

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