Hidden Agenda – Is there anything wrong with “advertorials”?

Q. My publication has a major advertiser who buys space every week. For the coming week, he provided copy that reads like an objective public interest article, and asked me to copy-set it like a regular article. Is this ethical?

A. The supposed “fire wall” between the editorial and marketing staffs in journalism has probably never been quite fireproof. But one breach that has exploded in popularity in recent years is the so-called “advertorial,” advertisements which are carefully written and typeset to have the look and feel of editorial opinion pieces.

According to Jewish law, this practice risks running foul of the strict prohibition to conceal a conflict of interest when giving advice.

The Torah tells us, “Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). According to Jewish tradition, this refers to anything that would incline a person to blindly act against his or her own best interest. Rashi’s commentary to the Torah explains, “This refers to someone who is blind in the matter; don’t give him advice which is not in his best interest. Don’t tell him ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey’ when you are secretly scheming to acquire it from him.”

Of course it’s a usual part of negotiation to explain to a bargaining partner that a deal is in his or her best interest. The ethical pitfall here is that the advisor is concealing his interest. There’s nothing wrong with trying to advance our own interests, as long as it’s done in an ethical way. But it is wrong to pretend to be impartial when actually we are pursuing a hidden agenda.

The same is true of advertising. It’s not unethical for an advertiser to provide a one-sided presentation of the many advantages of his or her product, in order to convince the consumer to buy. (Of course the presentation must not be dishonest or misleading.) But such an advertisement is unethical when it masquerades as an impartial editorial piece.

Therefore, a publication which wants to run such a piece needs to clearly label it as an advertisement, to avoid fooling readers into thinking that it is an impartial statement of editorial opinion.

The best publications avoid advertorials even when they are clearly labeled. Studies show that the editorial format of these adverts adds credibility even when readers know they are advertisements, but 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. You should consider this carefully before deciding to humor your sponsor.