Up until the recent recession, it was advertisers who paid for most of your news. Not all of it – the cover price of the newspaper covered some of the costs, and of course there’s the BBC – but publishing was able to be a truly profitable business because of advertisers paying for access to readers. And the more trusted and reputable the journal, the more valuable it could be as a vehicle to advertisers.
Some of the most successful ads piggyback on a newspaper’s style like mutating parasites, to borrow even more of the hosts authoritative gloss. Earlier this week, the Guardian celebrated the “Does your English let you down?” ad, which has been running pretty much continuously for almost 50 years. “Initially the reader thinks it’s part of editorial,” says Bob Heap of the Practical English Programme: “We used to match the typefaces of the newspaper it was printed in.”
Advertisers can also pay for a newspaper or magazine to produce ad copy in the house style of the journal – advertorial. Whenever this appears, it should always be clearly marked out from the editorial, both to avoid misleading the reader and to protect the paper or magazine’s reputation from corruption. In Free, Chris Anderson compares this approach to the relevance practiced in online ads – which deliberately places ads next to content on the same subject – and wonders whether print editors are over-punctilious about distinguishing ads from editorial:
It’s also entirely possible that we in the traditional media business have it all wrong.Perhaps we are just flattering ourselves with our church-and-state pursuit of purity, and readers don’t care or even notice if a Sony ad is next to a Sony review. Perhaps they would even prefer that and it’s our writers who are the real obstacles, afraid that anyone might think that their opinion has been bought.
Chris Anderson, Free (Random House Business, 2009), pp. 138-9
What’s interesting is that Anderson doesn’t place any value on ad/ed separation as a way of preventing influence, only as a way of preventing the appearance of influence: as far as he’s concerned here, if the reader doesn’t perceive a problem, then there is no problem.
Advertisers, on the other hand, are very conscious of a relationship between the ad and the copy. The presence of illegitimate, ramshackle and unwholesome material has been cited as one of the reasons for the reluctance to sponsor YouTube; the same caution might be about to be extended to newspaper comments sections, as advertisers weigh up the high engagement seen in unmoderated comments sections with the fact that most of the engagement is with racist, vituperative loons.
But just because advertisers seem to agree with some of the principle behind the “Great Wall of China” which Anderson describes, they don’t all necessarily agree with his idea of best practice – and nor do all newspapers, it turns out, since the Express has been nailed by the ASA for running specious “news” copy on a bunch of dubious-sounding CAM treatments alongside adverts for the same products:
(Interesting, as ever, that it falls to the ASA rather than the PCC to correct a practice in which the paper appears to be as culpable as the advertisers.)
Advertising still needs editorial, and editorial needs advertising as much as ever, but they can only have any value to each other if both maintain a basic propriety: whatever financial gain the Express and their advertisers took from this arrangement has probably been wiped out by the loss of reputation both parties brought upon themselves.
Edit 19 August: The ASA’s full judgement is here.
© Sarah Ditum, 2009