Press credibility is a zero-sum game

Competition in the communications media is intense, and is creating innovative new media categories like infotainment, edutainment, and so on. One of the most popular categories, and one of the most ethically problematic, is the so-called “advertorial”. An advertorial is an advertisement which is carefully written and typeset to have the look and feel of news or of an editorial opinion piece.

The most serious ethical problem with advertorials is outright fraud. In many publications, advertorials appear side by side with regular editorial content without any distinguishing notification, and only the sophisticated reader will be able to distinguish it. Other times there is some indication but it is virtually unnoticeable. Recently I saw an article that was clearly an advertorial, but I searched carefully and was unable to find any indication. I was perplexed because I had previously spoken to one of the publishers about the dangers of advertorials, and he assured me that he was aware of the ethical difficulties and was always careful to clearly label these pieces. Finally after minutes of searching I found the notice (I guess): a tiny Hebrew “mem” in the corner of a graphic, which presumably stood for “modaa” – advertisement.

I personally am sensitized to the smoking guns of advertorials: generic-sounding author names, focusing on the benefits of a specific product, article doesn’t appear in the contents page, etc. But I wonder how many other readers realized that this “public-service” article was really a paid ad.

Such misleading tactics are fraud even if every word in the advertorial is true. The press is supposed to be not only accurate, but also reasonably objective. Even an editorial piece, which does express an opinion, is meant to voice the unbiased judgment of the writer. Of course people with an agenda are also welcome to write editorials, but there needs to be transparency; the writers must clearly present their private interest in the topic of discussion.

But even a prominently labeled advertorial can constitute a problem. Studies show that the look-alike format of these articles adds credibility even when readers know they are advertisements. Credibility is a zero-sum game. If the newspaper format is giving credibility to the ads, it is surely at the same time taking the same measure of credibility away from the paper’s regular articles.

Another problem is that the actual content of publications is often “directed” in order to provide a congenial environment for advertorials. For example, a paper may publish a sponsored section which includes a number of news articles on a particular topic together with advertising. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this but if the topic is not really newsworthy in itself then the ads are in effect driving the editorial decisions.

Advertorials are not inherently unethical. They can be an effective way for an advertiser to inform the reader that it is holding itself to a higher standard of objectivity than it would in a normal ad. But in my experience sponsors usually don’t really do this. The pieces often include phony by-lines and misleading content.

“Ethics@work” is in itself a kind of advertorial. I don’t work for the Post; I work for the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. The Post doesn’t get money from us, but they seem to feel that the column is a service to readers and for over a year they have been carrying the column as a regular feature. We in turn hope that the column will bring attention and appreciation for the work and expertise of our Center. But I do strive for objectivity and transparency: I do my best to uphold normal journalistic standards, and my by-line clearly states my affiliation. (Asher Meir is even my real name.)

A clearly-labeled and responsibly-written advertorial can be an ethical and effective way for a sponsor to show readers that it intends to present a thorough and well-documented message. But in practice, the medium is widely abused. In many cases these pieces are misleading in format and in content; abuse the credibility they borrow from the editorial format; and exert a negative influence on the ordinary editorial criteria of the publications which print them. Advertisers and publications alike must adopt clear and transparent standards for this useful but hazardous medium.