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News is subjective. For some, the latest crisis in the Middle East gets overshadowed by a story on what cats dream about. And this goes both ways—crucial articles about fanciful cat dreams fall by the wayside as we worry about the catastrophic drought in California.
OK, let’s be real. That never happens.
But this paradox says nothing new. After all, the evening news gives police car chases similar coverage to climate change, which network news channels devoted a combined 154 minutes to… in the entire calendar year of 2014.
So at this point, the definition of “news” is so diluted that if CNN filmed coverage of a squirrel humping a branch to the rhythm of “Staying Alive,” it would qualify as breaking and go viral. This is the America we live in, and if you don’t like it, move to Canada.
Nevertheless, perhaps we should begin to worry, because the news waters (made of Poland Spring) grow ever murkier with the proliferation of “native” advertising.
Free Press (Now Available for Purchase)
You see our touted free press system needs money to survive, and since no one buys print media anymore, publishers fuel the creation of digital content with ad dollars.
The problem is, traditional advertising (see: banner ads and pop-ups) doesn’t work online; if it did, it would be the equivalent of TV viewers electing to watch commercials, instead of getting mercilessly beaten over the head with them.
Aside from the .1% of folks who click on banner ads, the rest of us settle for reading advertising veiled as editorial content, leading us to the increasingly popular portmanteau—advertorial.
It’s this kind of 21st century ambiguous speak that allows publishers to rest easy at night in their dedicated sleeping compartments. Brands supply the funds to keep online media running, while sites quietly pepper their newsfeeds with articles hiding an agenda. Speaking of pepper, did you know Dr. Pepper had 23 flavors?
In many cases, it’s increasingly hard to discern actual editorial content from sponsored branded news. Take Buzzfeed, for example. The Millennial media giant, valued last year at $850 million, pushes the boundaries of the advertorial space by accepting massive income through brand advertising.
Buzzfeed’s homepage seamlessly integrates such pieces as “16 Animal Sneezes That Are Too Cute To Handle sponsored by Zyrtec®,” alongside its true news stories like “How Much Do You Actually Know About Boobs?”
While the former undoubtedly provides photos of cute animals sneezing, it also reminds the reader at the end: “Don’t let your sneeze catch you off guard. Try ZYRTEC®.”
Allowing Zyrtec manufacturer Pfizer to “recommend” medication under the guise of editorial content might not be the best idea. Then again, Buzzfeed places articles about politics in the same feed and no one clicks on those.
Et Tu, New York Times?
Man, Dr. Pepper is so fucking refreshing. But what about when the New York Times, a bastion of journalism, starts running articles sponsored by, say, Chevron? Well, shit, that happened already.
The New York Times published a sponsored post by the oil producing giant on their Paid Post subdomain titled “How Our Energy Needs Are Changing, In A Series Of Interactive Charts.” Meanwhile, Chevron plunders the Amazon rainforest beyond repair.
Clearly, Chevron paid The New York Times handsomely for the ad placement, and—we get it—money isn’t exactly flowing to publishers at the moment, but in a corrupt American government where elections are bought, the press proves the last frontier of autonomy.
What happens when the public can’t even trust them?
The news industry must make money to survive, but the continued assault on the wall between ads and editorial likens the fusion of Church and State. News organizations aren’t selling ad space, they’re selling their reputation.
And in a space with already limited trustworthiness, perhaps we already hold witness to a corrupt press. Sure, everything is all well and good as long as native advertorials display clear marking, but what about when brands with agendas directly influence the editorial choices of publishers?
They already do.
Remember Buzzfeed? Let’s revisit them. The publisher recently became tied-up in a series of scandalous editorial decisions.
As Gawker reports, Buzzfeed redacted a number of posts funded by the pressure of advertising dollars. In the past couple months, the site deleted posts critical of the board game Monopoly (under pressure by the manufacturer Hasbro), as well as articles knocking Dove Soap and Axe Body Spray thanks to outrage by Unilever (who owns both properties).
Unsurprisingly, Unilever is a major Buzzfeed advertiser and was appalled at an article that criticized Axe Body Spray ad campaigns of objectifying women and promoting rape culture. No, how could that be?
The situation at Buzzfeed devolves even further. The site removed another article critical of multiple brands who would “bombard your Twitter feed” during the Super Bowl. The piece by Samir Mezrahi targeted brands like Pepsi, Diet Coke, Target, Sprint, and AT&T.
Since Buzzfeed entered a lucrative contract with Pepsi to publish branded social media posts during the Super Bowl, the article was deleted within hours of publication.
The examples of this course of action continue to pile up, including another post that was deleted for making fun of Microsoft’s product, Internet Explorer, apparently because of a conflict of interest—the author had worked with Microsoft in the past.
This all comes after Buzzfeed released a thorough ethics guide last year, which clearly states:
A strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content.
Well, that’s precisely the problem—there is no distinct separation between advertising and editorial content anymore. It’s all tangled-up in a nebulous cloud of uncertainty, where writers who worked with certain brands in the past no longer reserve the right to speak out against them, and brand interests control free speech.
News: Sponsored by…
While Buzzfeed presents itself as the most glaring example at the moment, this advertorial intermingling happens everywhere. Just last month, Facebook announced plans to host publishers’ editorial content directly on their site.
If this were to happen—and The New York Times is rumored to be involved—all content would be subject to Facebook’s policies, which include the ability to deem certain content “inappropriate.” This isn’t free speech. In fact, it’s the opposite.
What happened to the Millennial generation’s promise to change the status quo? What of all of us who scoff at the outright propaganda on FOX News, and still browse Buzzfeed?
Sure, Buzzfeed is the self-proclaimed voice of our generation—as long as you consider that voice was filtered through channels which money controls. Sadly, this situation proves larger than Buzzfeed, as it begins to consume the entire online media industry.