The Atlantic is one news site, of many, that now features sponsored content. Image courtesy of The Atlantic.
For generations of journalists, the separation of “church and state” represented an enduring ideal: The business side of a news organization would not interfere with the independence and integrity of its reportage.
Like most ideals, this existed as much in theory as in practice, as evidenced by the product and brand-centric content populating the pages of Lucky, Maxim and InStyle. Yet the basic layout of more reputable newspapers and magazines—with ads on one side and editorial on the other—at least seemed to mirror this ambition of walling off influence and, perhaps more critically, suggested as much to readers. For advertisers and their corporate clients, however, it was never a satisfying arrangement.
“Marketers haven’t ever wanted to underwrite the content industry,” admitted Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategy and innovation officer at a digital firm, in The Daily You. “They’ve been forced.” The increasing creep of sponsored content away from the margins of media and into the stories themselves suggests that marketers might no longer be forced to stay to the side after cutting the checks. And the resulting blur of that “church and state” offers a Faustian bargain to the news industry: What could save it from financial woes might also destroy some of its noblest principles—delivering content unencumbered by those subsidizing the enterprise and gaining readers’ trust through that appearance of impartiality.
BuzzFeed is usually Exhibit A in the case for (or against) brand-backed content, but one can argue that it’s an innocuous arena for experimenting with publishing norms. (Does the fact that Dunkin’ Donuts assembled this gallery of slapstick GIFs, for example, really compromise the “integrity” of the site?) The Huffington Post has similarly advanced its own sponsored partnerships, but it, too, has long been a noisy bazaar of link-baited listicles and thinly veiled promotional copy. As these sites have matured, though, they’ve pursued even more substantive news coverage, especially in politics. And the results of their sponsorship experimentation could well set the industry standard for other publications online. That’s disconcerting, when the placement and style of advertorial content at those sites seems to intermingle freely with the more “legitimate” reporting there.
Indeed, the true ambition—and real threat—of brand integration begins to emerge when you study the sponsored posts at, say, Gawker and note how, tonally and aesthetically, the ad message is supposed to blend in, indistinguishably, with the neighboring snark. The industry term for this, “native advertising,” reveals its aspirations to embed PR material in adjacent spaces we’ve come to expect editorial autonomy.