After almost two years of dithering, and figuratively one step ahead of scheduled Federal Trade Commission hearings on the subject, the American Society of Magazine Editors "updated its guidelines for editors and publishers to further address sponsored content and 'native' advertising online," Advertising Age reported October 18.
At the same time, the Associated Press announced plans to start sneaking sponsored articles – advertising messages that look and read like actual editorial content – into their news coverage.
"Sponsored content" and "native" ads, Ad Age explains, "usually are designed to mimic a site's editorial content" so that readers who'd normally tune out ads will be suckered into reading them. The new ASME guidelines say they shouldn't be. Specifically, they say that
- Every reader is entitled to fair and accurate news and information.
- The value of magazines to advertisers depends on reader trust.
- The difference between editorial content and marketing messages must be transparent.
- Editorial integrity must not be compromised by advertiser influence.
- ASME believes that adherence to these principles enhances the value of print and digital publications for readers and advertisers and protects the independence of magazine media.
Meanwhile, in the real world...
That's nice, but there are lots of reasons online magazines and other digital publishers do just the opposite. One of them is money – big money.
As we reported here a month ago,
- One Twitter promoted topic sells for $120,000, Supporting tweets are $80,000. Each.
- One BuzzFeed sponsored article is $20,000 – a bargain $100,000 for a package of six.
No wonder so many publishers tend to follow high-minded practices like ASME's more in the breach than the observance. Following the new guidelines, Ad Age says,
would seem to require a change from magazines such as Forbes, one of the most prominent publishers to put a major emphasis on sponsored posts. It lets paying advertisers publish posts that look very similar to articles by Forbes staff but carry a "BrandVoice" label at the top next to the marketer's logo, a line of text reading "Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience" and a "What is this?" link that readers can click for a fuller explanation.
That, by the way, is what a Forbes spokeswoman calls transparent identification and clear labeling. "Our data shows BrandVoice content is extensively read and widely shared," she emailed to support her claim. But that datum could just as easily demonstrate how well opaque identification and unclear labeling fool unsuspecting readers into reading advertising.
Forbes is far from alone. As Ad Age notes,
"Native" ads designed to more or less mimic the content of the site where they appear are no longer at all novel for digital-only companies, and variations on the approach are increasingly common at media organizations as conservative as the The Washington Post -- and perhaps soon, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
(One thing Ad Age somehow forgot to mention is that they're doing it themselves from time to time, on their own daily advertising alert emails.)
Without naming names, ASME CEO Sid Holt said, "There are definitely publications that are using the same font and graphics" for ads and articles.
Welcome to the bandwagon
Now, to compensate for declining revenues elsewhere in their operations, AP is jumping on the bandwagon, "planning to introduce sponsored articles into the stream of news stories on its mobile apps and hosted websites" by early 2014.
They say that sponsored posts on the AP mobile app, which has 2.8 million monthly unique users, will be marked as advertisements. But how clearly and transparently, in what fonts and formats, they'll be marked is anybody's guess right now.
But if AP – or any other publisher, for that matter – ignores the new, tighter guidelines, consequences won't be exactly dire:
Editors and publishers of magazines found to be in violation of the guidelines by the ASME Board of Directors are notified in writing. Repeated and willful violation of the guidelines may lead to public sanction, including disqualification from the National Magazine Awards.
Oooh, I'm quaking in my boots.
Big Brother is watching
"We're not law givers. We're articulating best practices for the industry for magazine editors," Holt said. "We do feel very strongly that a self-regulating industry should follow these guidelines."
If the industry doesn't start following those guidelines by December 4, when FTC hearings start, the unelected administrative law givers of the federal government just might start doing some regulating for them.