How sponsored content is compromising journalistic integrity

Love it or hate it, everyone under the age of 25 seems to have an opinion about BuzzFeed. It’s the clickbait capital of the Internetwith astronomical levels of web traffic and a jarring valuation of over $1 billion. But how exactly is BuzzFeed able to achieve this with no banner ads and no subscription model to generate revenue?

The answer is sponsored content, of course.

Also known as native advertising, or advertorial, sponsored content is intended to be indistinguishable from editorial content. It’s the ideal way to grab the reader’s attention, and it integrates seamlessly with the user experience. The ad becomes something to be engaged with, instead of something that sticks out — like a banner ad.

Brands create native ads by commissioning publications to create content that looks like an editor-approved article or a photo spread; in this way, they pay to promote their business with a subtlety and nuance. Some examples of sponsored content include BuzzFeed’s “10 Quotes Every Grad Needs to Read,” sponsored by publishing house Harper Collins, and The Atlantic’s “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” commissioned by the Church of Scientology.

There are some subtle giveaways that indicate that you’re reading sponsored content. Phrases like ‘presented by’, ‘delivered by’ or ‘sponsor post’ can sometimes be found in the byline, or on other parts of the page. It is this subtlety that makes native advertising so appealing for branding companies; furthermore it’s immune to the increasingly popular ad blockers that many people use on their phones and computers.

While sponsored content is nothing new — it’s been in magazines since before the digital era and exists as product placement in TV — it’s become an unnervingly ubiquitous part of the Internet experience, with websites like the aforementioned BuzzFeed as well as VICE, Gawker, Forbes, and even The New Yorker indulging in the revenue stream. Canadian publications like Toronto Life and Financial Post also publish sponsored content. While great for inducing clicks, sponsored content compromises what should be the most important thing to any respectable publication: the trust and respect of readers.

Publishers are being intentionally deceitful when they disguise ads as content. It’s disappointing to begin reading an article, only to find out you’re having something sold to you. The editorial integrity of the publication is compromised.

That’s not to say that ads can’t be enjoyable, or should be banished entirely. Ads are one of the biggest draws for viewers of the Super Bowl for instance. The key difference, however, is that we can distinguish a Super Bowl ad from the main event; in contrast, studies have shown that most people can’t tell the difference between real articles and sponsored content.

Perhaps more concerning is that native advertising also hinders a publication’s ability to be independent. Last April, BuzzFeed staff writer Arabelle Sicardi wrote a post that criticized a Dove ad campaign, which was later taken down by upper management because Dove is a brand publisher with the website. The juxtaposition of journalism and advertorial compromises outlets’ role as a social conscience.

Corporate interests will always impact journalism, but native advertising goes a step further. It intentionally deceives the reader. Imagine a parallel in the university system — for example, it would be an outrage if students discovered that the supposedly independent scholarship we read was actually sponsored by massive corporations. The same way we value the independent voices of scholars, we should value independent and uncompromised journalism.

As students, we are significant consumers of mass media and journalism and consequently, we should be both wary and critical of the way advertising is increasingly woven into the fabric of the press. Though it may seem we, as individuals, have little sway over these larger trends in society, but we can stay alert and call for integrity and accountability from our journalistic outlets.

Jaren Kerr is a third-year student at Innis College, studying bioethics and writing & rhetoric. He is The Varsity’s associate features editor.

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