Media publishers who put their trust in native advertising and sponsored content apparently have a big problem on their hands. According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2015, published this summer, 33 per cent of British and 43 per cent of American respondents had been disappointed after reading an article that they only later realised were sponsored content.
Half of the respondents in both countries reported that they did not like sponsored content but accept it as part of free news content. Only 13 per cent of British respondents and 22 per cent of the Americans regarded sponsored content an interesting way to learn about topics of personal interest to them.
The message from these readers is clear: paid content should not be concealed under the cloak of journalism. The wheat must also be separated from the chaff in story-telling. Figures showing such low levels of interest indicate that native advertising still requires considerable development.
The Council for Mass Media (CMM), which monitors media ethics, recently issued a statement clarifying the difference between journalistic and commercial materials. New guidelines were hammered out by the key actors in the field from newspapers and magazines, television and radio.
The practices in various media channels have been versatile and diverse. There has been talk of sponsored cooperation, associate blogs, partner content and radio programme enablers, for instance. In one way or another, the frequently colourful terminology rather coyly blurs the fact that some external party has paid for and determined the content. On the other hand, it is implicit to the basic sacrosanct principles of journalism that editorial decision-making is never surrendered to interests beyond the editorial office.
CMM recommends that mass media uses the word ‘advertisement’ for notices, commercial messages, advertorials and other traditional commercial content, because as a term it is unambiguous and highly familiar. The word advertisement must always be used in newspapers and magazines and on radio, television and the Internet when there is a risk of confusion, or if the general public are incapable of easily differentiating whether the relevant item is an advertisement or a story. The party that pays for an advertisement is called an advertiser.
The Council noted in its statement that the traditional terms ‘notice’ and ‘advertisement’ have been shown to be overly general in native advertising, for instance, where cooperation between the mass media and its partners can be highly creative. Paid content can also be marked in this case with the term ‘commercial cooperation’, which clearly notes that journalism is not what is in question. The name of the advertiser in the same connection also indicates with whom the cooperation is being practised.
As far as commercial radio is concerned, CMM recommends that radio broadcasters distinguish between advertising and journalistic content by explaining the commercial cooperation at the beginning of the programme, at suitable moments during the programme, and at its end, as well as who the partner and programme sponsor are at the time.
The new guidelines have managed to attract a certain measure of fresh confusion and criticism. One of these misunderstandings should be corrected: not all notices need to be distinguished from other content by the word ‘advertisement’, and only in those instances when the content of the notice resembles editorial content in style. For example, the words ‘death advertisement’ need not be added to obituaries.
It should also be remembered that this concerns a recommendation: CMM will not automatically hand down a punishment if it is not observed. The Council will consequently assess the whole matter at a later stage to determine whether the advertisement content emerges clearly enough to the reader, viewer or listener.