Opinion

The Dangers of Publishing Ads That Look Like News Articles

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

If you went to your doctor feeling ill, you wouldn’t want her to decide what medicine to prescribe you based on which drug company had paid her to recommend its pills that week. You’d want her to use her best professional judgement.

Likewise, you wouldn’t want your news organisation to decide which articles to write and how to write them based on which advertisers are paying them this week. You’d want them to use their best professional judgement.

That’s why the growing use of “native advertising” by Irish news media organisations is so worrying — as is the fact that it’s not adequately regulated. 

There are lots of kinds of native ads, some harmless, some not. What they all have in common is that they resemble the surrounding content (unlike say, a pop-up ad, which is more intrusive).

Promoted Facebook posts or tweets can be called native advertising, for example. They look like other posts and tweets, and appear in your feed just like their kinfolk. But they’re not what I’m concerned with here.

What I am worried about are paid-for “articles” on news websites, which come complete with headline, byline, photos and all, and which news sites publish alongside their real, independently produced articles.

Best practice is to clearly label such native ads as paid-for, but sometimes the labelling isn’t clear, and sometimes there is none at all. You have probably read some of these advertisements and thought that they were real news articles.

In these cases, journalists are putting their professional judgement aside and writing what advertisers have paid them to write, selling you the drugs they’ve been paid to sell.

“Native advertising is primarily about disguising ads as content,” says Ciaran Walsh, owner of Sweatshop Media, which sells advertising for Broadsheet, among other sites. “Why try and hoodwink the reader? It feels like a cheap card trick.”  

Dr Eileen Culloty, of Dublin City University’s Institute for the Future of Journalism is also sceptical about native advertising. “This is a curious strategy for newspapers struggling to reposition themselves in crowded digital media system, because it undermines their credibility,” she said.

“We might accept that a health magazine is largely in the business of pushing health products or that celebrity news is largely PR, but read it anyway because we are interested in the stories,” Culloty says. “This acceptance doesn’t apply as easily to news content, because paid advertising masquerading as news undermines all the news in a publication.”

And yet some of our largest and most respected news organisations are running native advertising — some of it well labelled as such, some of it not.

How Not to Do It

Let’s take, for example, this Irish Times production, titled “Coffee vs Gangs”, which I would call a native ad.

Coffee vs Gangs is an elaborate package of articles, photographs and videos in the online edition of the Irish Times, in the “Life & Style” section. It was published in May. It looks really slick and expensive.

It begins: “The Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs project has been running for nine months in Honduras, a country wracked by gang violence and drug-related crime. Twenty young people, from disadvantaged areas, signed up to a course in the business of coffee, each hoping to carve out a second chance for themselves. But has it worked? Gary Quinn and videographer Viv Maher went to Honduras to find out.”

I remember seeing this project published back in May. It was only recently that someone suggested to me that it was, in effect, a paid-for native ad for Kenco. 

So I went back last week, expecting to find that the project was labelled “sponsored” and I had just missed it. But it wasn’t, and — as far as I can tell — I hadn’t.

If you go to the project’s home page, click into one of the articles, and scroll to the bottom, you will find a note saying the project was “being run by Kenco and in association with The Irish Times”. On my third visit searching for the “sponsored” label, I noticed a similar note in the sidebar. 

Neither was completely clear to me. What does “in association” mean? So I emailed Gary Quinn, whose byline is all over the project, to ask whether the Irish Times got any funding from Kenco to do the project. “Yes, it was sponsored content,” he told me by email.

When I saw the project back in May, I remember thinking that it was a good bit of journalism by the Irish Times about a pretty nice initiative by Kenco. Now it seems like they worked together to trick me.

The site says, “The Irish Times has control over all editorial content associated with the project”. But I suspect they would not have done the project without financial support from Kenco, and I doubt they would have used their editorial control to take too critical a line against the funder.

What I had assumed was fair, accurate reporting on a programme that the newspaper’s journalists thought I would be interested in, I now see as a very elaborate press release designed to burnish an advertiser’s reputation.

I feel foolish, and that makes me angry — because who likes to be made a sucker?  I’m less likely to trust what I read in the Irish Times now, and less likely to buy the paper. I also wonder: if our “newspaper of record” does this kind of thing, what news source can I trust?

This is the problem with badly executed native advertising.

The Irish Times’s New Push

In the months since it sold off a piece of its credibility for whatever it got from Kenco for the Coffee vs Gangs project, the Irish Times has launched a full-on push to expand what I would call its native advertising programme.

Who’s charge? Gary Quinn, the Coffee vs Gangs man.

He has recently been appointed the Irish Times’ “content services” editor. Last week was his third week on the job, he told me by phone.

The Irish Times has been doing “sponsored content” since the 1950s, Quinn said, publishing paid-for special sections and the like. And, for a while, there’s been a “Sponsored” section on the website, which contains things that look like articles, but are advertisements.

So what’s the Times doing now that’s new? It’s unclear. Quinn is at pains to suggest that, in fact, there’s nothing new here — nothing to see here.

He says the Times’ ad sales folks will be working with advertisers who want to sponsor content, and Quinn will be working with freelancers to get this stuff written and edited. The Times will then publish it on its website.

These ads will be presented in a way that is “more discoverable” than the Times‘ current native ads in the “Sponsored” section, Quinn said. Will they be scattered around the website, among the real news articles? I asked. “It will still live under ‘Sponsored’ but it will be more discoverable,” Quinn said, explaining that he was not sure of the details, as he was only two weeks into the job.  

The Times is planning to “go to market” with this new initiative over the next couple of months, Quinn said.

Quinn admitted that there has been resistance from journalists within the Irish Times to this new initiative. “Yeah, absolutely, they’d be very cautious,” he says.

But he says that the Times will follow the strictest ethical guidelines. Native ads will be “very, very clearly labelled and identified”, he says. And the paper won’t publish native ads that include content “we don’t agree with”.

Quinn admits that the Coffee vs Gangs project was “set up in a way that wasn’t ideal”. And he says, “Under our new guidelines we wouldn’t do a project in this way again. It would be much more explicitly labelled.”

Apparently the new guidelines do not apply retrospectively, though.

Coffee vs Gangs remains in the “Life & Style” section of the Irish Times website, not under “Sponsored”, and it remains poorly labelled. So it is just there, lurking, ready to fool more suckers like me who stumble upon it.

Increasingly Important  

IAB Ireland, which describes itself as “the trade association for digital advertising”, says it only started tracking native-advertising spend in 2015, so it doesn’t have enough data to show a trend.

But several media organisations told me that native advertising income is an increasingly large portion of their overall advertising revenue, and that they expect it to keep growing. (They all said that they clearly label all their native ads so readers won’t be confused.)

Julian Hecksher, head of digital sales for Independent News Media (INM), told me by email that “Last year was a very good year for native content with sponsored content accounting for about 5% of all digital advertising revenue. The medium is continuing to explode and we expect it to contribute 11% of Ad revenue in 2016.”

Hecksher continued: “On Independent.ie we offer a full suite of native advertising products, from the traditional Sponsored Feature to full native that is featured on our home page and the app and given full social support through our various channels to our first to market multimedia native that features interactive digital elements and presents them in a richer more experiential way.”

RTÉ publishes “sponsored or promoted content on RTE.ie,” according to comments forwarded to me by a spokesperson, who asked me to attribute them to Conor Mullen, Commercial Director, RTÉ Media Sales (Digital). But it “does not publish advertising content that resembles RTÉ editorial content.”

RTÉ wouldn’t say what percentage of its advertising revenue comes from native ads. “However, native advertising is reported to be the biggest growth area within digital advertising, so we can expect this to increase in the future,” it said.  

The Journal was much less cagey about its native advertising programme. CEO Adrian Acosta pointed me to one webpage listing the native advertising options it offers, and another page offering case studies of native ad campaigns the Journal has run.

This included a campaign for the grocery-store chain Lidl to promote it as “a go-to destination for quality wine and great quality goods generally”. According to the site, the week-long campaign included “sponsored articles, a social ad, a digital insert, and an interactive quiz”.

“The portion of advertising from sponsorships and native advertising is bigger than that from display advertising,” Acosta told me by email. “This is a growing segment.”

Lovin Dublin produces articles for companies that don’t necessarily mention that company by name, Lovin Group General Manager Graham Kinsella told me by email. Like this list of “11 Things We’ve All Done When We’ve Been Hangry”, which is marked as sponsored at the top, and has an ad for Just Eat at the bottom, but doesn’t mention Just Eat in the text.

Kinsella said such native advertising accounts for “about 30%” of Lovin Dublin’s ad revenue. “We would see this increasing for sure,” he said.

All these organisations said they clearly label native ads so readers won’t be fooled. They’re hoping, they say, to create ads that are interesting enough that we’ll read them and share them even though we know they are ads. And they say they are succeeding.

“The performance of our native content would suggest that our readers are engaging with it,” says INM’s Hecksher. “The dwell times are very high on our native indicating that native content is read from start to finish.”

Of the media organisations I contacted, which include those in this article, as well as two others that didn’t want to go on the record, only one said it didn’t use native ads.

“We’ve never really been into native advertising,” said Sweatshop’s Ciaran Walsh. “Our network of sites, Broadsheet.ie primarily, don’t believe in them as a format, we’ve always felt it betrays the trust a publisher should have with its reader.”

Poorly Regulated

So what happens if a media organisation doesn’t follow best practices, and doesn’t properly label a paid-for article as paid-for, tricking us into reading, say, something sponsored by Kenco about how great and socially conscious Kenco is, thinking it is unbiased journalism?

Who regulates news sites’ advertising practices?

The Press Council mostly leaves that up to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney told me by email.

But “a complaint that something published has been ‘inappropriately influenced by undisclosed interests’ could fall within the remit of the Press Ombudsman’s office,” Feeney said. “We would consult the ASAI in this instance before deciding if the complaint should be accepted.”

However, even if it did accept the complaint, “The only ‘sanction’ the Press Council has is the requirement to publish in full and with due prominence upheld decisions of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council.”

The ASAI, meanwhile, primarily regulates advertisers, not news organisations.

“The [ASAI] Code provides that primary responsibility for observing the Code rests with advertisers,” ASAI Chief Executive Orla Twomey told me by email. “Others involved in the preparation and publication of marketing communications, such as agencies, media and other service providers, also accept an obligation under the Code.”

And if an advertiser doesn’t follow the ASAI code, and doesn’t properly label a native ad? “We do not receive many complaints that advertorial material has not been labelled as such,” Twomey said. But “One such example is attached.”

The complaint she attached was about an ad titled “Advanced clinical hypnotherapy will get results”. It named the offending advertiser, but not the media organisation(s) that published the ad.

Twomey explained: “In this case as the media concerned immediately accepted that an error had occurred and undertook to ensure that future similar material would be appropriately flagged, we did not identify them.”

So there was no naming or shaming, much less financial or criminal punishment.

This light-touch regulation does not inspire confidence in me that the Press Council and/or the ASAI can and will restrain unscrupulous and/or desperate media organisations tempted by advertisers offering them pots of money to do the wrong thing.

The Sunday Business Post recently reported that ASAI is going to crack down on “digital influencers who do not declare paid posts”. But maybe the regulator should be cracking down on news organisations rather than fashion bloggers.

I’d say we can look forward to reading more and more “articles” that are actually advertisements, even in some of our most prominent and respectable “news” sources.

Making Ends Meet

My wife, Lois Kapila, founded and runs Dublin Inquirer. So I am acutely aware of the financial pressures on news organisations.

And I am sympathetic to those that are struggling to make ends meet. It’s hard to get readers to subscribe — and traditional advertising is increasingly tricky too, because of the advent of ad-blocking software on computers and mobile phones.

So I don’t begrudge news organisations that run clearly labelled native ads. The trouble is, when even the country’s “paper of record” is running native ads that aren’t clearly labelled, I fear that many other organisations might be too.

We journalists shouldn’t undermine what little credibility we have by doing this. We need to have a credible, independent news media in our society, to call out corporate and governmental malfeasance, to rage and name and shame when necessary.

So it saddens me that journalists are increasingly selling off their credibility to advertisers for a few extra euro. When the time comes, and we have something important to say, we might have compromised ourselves to the point that no one will listen.

 

Comments

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  2. Daniel
    11 February at 14:22

    Over five years as editor at Totally Dublin, the pressure from advertisers for sweeteners evolved from subtle to pretty lurid. Ad agencies have always been fully aware of the power they hold over media that are largely reliant on ad-based revenue, but more and more independent businesses & organisations started to use agency/corporate tactics in squeezing every last drop of their investment in the ailing publishing industry.

    We were fortunate enough to have some loyal advertisers who felt invested in the magazine’s survival, and had trust in our editorial policy. For instance, our bar review section has been sponsored by Noreast (distributor of Budvar, Erdinger and others) since time immemorial, and are an examplar of a healthy media-corporate relationship; TD is not required to exclusively review bars that stock these beers, nor ever plug their products.

    But there have been a litany of advertisers who have tried to bully their way into more, or more favourable, coverage. In one instance, a (rather notorious) owner of a chain of city-centre bars insisted we sack a writer who he perceived to have sleighted one of the venues that he had mismanaged out of existence.

    On a larger scale, we have run content initiatives with brands like Heineken – TD’s role here is to generate story ideas that might fit Heineken’s brand profiles and incentives. Content like this is plastered with Heino branding, so there’s no mistaking it for anything other than native advertising. Most of these larger campaigns are bank-rolled by drinks companies, which is highly regulated – but Sam is correct that native advertising standards would be welcome across the board (particularly online),

    Native can be done with integrity: Buzzfeed has a long-standing, fruitful relationship with UNICEF, for instance. But when The Guardian’s entire global development section is bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, you wonder what sort of editorial independence its journalists have when it comes to criticising the Foundation’s perception of what ‘global development’ entails. But when it comes down to a choice between ethics and survival, we’re all most likely to choose the latter.

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