Posted April 9, 2013 4:12 pm by with 2 comments

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blurryBack in the Golden Age of television, most shows were “sponsored by” one or two products. Between acts, TV characters proclaimed their love of a certain product and today we have product placement that requires the cops of Hawaii Five-o to stop and eat a Subway sandwich.

In other words, we’ve been blurring the lines between editorial content and advertising for a long while. We took a little break in the 80’s and 90’s and now we’re finding all new ways to mix brands and content.

Taking the Brand to the Content

Tanzina Vega of the New York Times published a piece this week on this very subject. She points out a collection of space tech articles on Mashable that were sponsored by Snapdragon (a Qualcom brand of computer chip) then remains journalisticly neutral, presenting both sides of the issue.

On one hand, there’s the argument that article sponsorship is no different than running a banner ad next to the copy, as long as the article wasn’t written to suit the brand.

On the other hand, the average person isn’t going to notice the sponsored tag on the article and will come away thinking the piece is as unbiased as any other piece on the site. (Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.)

A naysayer in the NYTimes piece calls it corporate propaganda. I wouldn’t go that far. These articles aren’t pushing anyone to drink the Kool-Aid. At best, the sponsors get a brand boost because they used their funds to help educate the world. Is that so bad?

Guess it depends on the brand.

Taking Content to The Brand

Ironically, the New York Times has it’s own version of branded content called Ricochet. Brands can choose an articles from the New York Times website that fits their campaign. For example, a luxury jewelry company might choose a story about the latest designs from Paris Fashion Week. Ricochet creates a unique web address and anyone who visits will see that article with those ads.

Forbes runs a similar program with Martini Media. The ad network’s clients can choose and use Forbes pre-written content. To read the content, a visitor must click through and return to the Forbes homepage, so authors still get full credit for the article they crafted.

As a writer, I think this is a win-win for everyone as long as the material isn’t being swayed by the sponsor and the author still gets the traffic. And it’s not like authors have any control over the ads that show up next to the work on site.

The danger is, that when you remove content from the normal surrounds, or clearly mark it as “sponsored by”, there’s an implied recommendation. If a Pepsi ad shows up next to my work here, there’s no implied connection. If my work turns up on a Pepsi website, it looks like I’m 100% behind the brand when truthfully, I’m a Diet Coke girl all the way.

The reality is, we’re all lucky if the average reader makes it to the end of the post (thanks to all of you who are still reading this.) So anything that gets more people to read more pages is a good thing.

Frank, you have my permission to put Pepsi ads on my articles. I won’t like it, but if that’s what it takes to keep us moving forward. I’m on board.

How do you feel about the merger of editorial and brand? Is it okay to blur the lines, or should they be completely separate animals?

  • Anon

    Its vs it’s … pet peeve. Writers should know better.

  • A little copy editing would be nice.