The redoubtable (and financially adventurous) blogger Andrew Sullivan took on “sponsored content” this week to devastating effect.

He used BuzzFeed’s “native advertising” as Exhibit A:


Here is Buzzfeed”s post on Sony’s Playstation 4 posted yesterday at 8.07 pm. Despite being billed as “The Only Post You Need To Read About The PlayStation 4,” it was actually preceded by this post on Buzzfeed the day before about the same event, titled “11 Things You Didn’t Know About PlayStation”. The difference is that the February 19 post was “sponsored” by PlayStation and the February 20 one was written by two staffers with by-lines. Go check them both out and see the differences (an off-white background and acknowledgment of the sponsor) and the similarities (in form, structure and tone, basically identical).


Bad enough, right?  But as Sullivan notes, “[A]ll of the posts in the sidebar . . . were sponsored by Sony, even though . . . they are not distinguished as such. Once you slip into the advertorial vortex at Buzzfeed, everything that is advertizing appears as non-advertizing. ”

Which leads Sulivan to this observation:


I don’t see an ethical line being definitively crossed here – just deliberately left very fuzzy. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but one core ethical rule I thought we had to follow in journalism was the church-state divide between editorial and advertizing.


Put another way: You have the right to know when you’re being advertised to.

How quaintly old school.

But, as Sullivan concludes, “I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?”

Amen, brother.



John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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