I don’t think it’s a revelation to most people that sponsored content exists. We’ve seen it in media, games and promotions for generations. So what’s different now? Now we’re seeing sponsored content inserting itself into mainstream journalism with any skepticism being met with shrugging shoulders.
There are many at the top of the media totem that see sponsored content as harmless. This should be alarming to some as these injected corporate opinions are starting to subtly blend into trusted information sources. Rather than abrupt statements headlined by brand names, articles are concluded by a subtle ‘brought to you by’ if they admit anything at all. It’s starting to look like media is tricking people into reading advertisement under the guise of actual journalism.
Why Does Sponsored Content Exist?
There’s no secret that media publication, particularly print, has suffered in earnings due to readily available information online. Conventional ad costs continue to be high and deliver less value as eyeballs shift to screens from classic paper and ink. Publishers need cash, and native advertising is another option.
A company shows up with a bag of money and a point of view, saying they want a dedicated article or air time to their product, and it’s starting to look far more attractive. Companies and advertisers are smart, despite what we wish to think. They know readers are becoming programmed to gloss over the untrusted ad hype of the corporate world. So the next endeavour is to bury this persuasion within the more trusted content of informative media.
This should seem like an abomination to a journalist. To have their trade so heavily influenced by what is easily recognized, one-sided fluff. Everyone needs to get paid I suppose, but you wouldn’t want your doctor to be this easily manipulated. Imagine if your doctor would only recommend sponsored medication rather than the ideal solution for your problem. Some may argue this happens anyways, but I hope it articulates my point about professionalism.
An Outcry for Transparency
What do I expect from my news outlets? I would hope the answer is impartial journalism, even if that is an oxymoron for North American media producers. As a society, we’ve created expectations for certain streams of information. Blogs and online journalism must be taken with skepticism, but we still rely on the established news channels to offer unbiased reporting.
When a corporation can insert their product through the guise of lifestyle advice, economic overviews or any from of documentary without complete transparency, it can falsely persuade. Now, if a Canadian telecom player wants to take out a one-pager in the paper about the impact of allowing international telecom providers into Canada, I have no problem as long as it’s apparent. That way I know it may be biased because of the invested interest of the company wanting to avoid more competition. Take away the transparency and publish it as an unfiltered news story, it has the opportunity to persuade an audience without understanding the bias or counter points.
I don’t have a problem with open and transparent sponsored content, hoping that opponents will join into the conversation. It’s almost like a more pure capitalism; let the corporations fight for your attention with well structured articles rather than ad noise. It might even be a refreshing change if only our attention spans would allow such a transition in communication design.
When is it a Problem?
It’s a problem when I lose trust in the media. Ok, maybe that’s already an issue for me, but there’s a distinctly unpleasant taste to trudging through obviously corporate content. The moment when the real journalism is taking a backseat to what is essentially product propaganda is when I’ll worry. Not because I can’t go somewhere else for my information, I already do, but I have to coexist with a populace that relies on easy to reach content to formulate their perspectives.
We all do this, build our point of view from the information we receive, looking to experts and evidence to fill in the blanks. When the trusted media sources move further and further from honest publication, the masses don’t always inhale the trash through a filter. The result can be a less educated public that has to make decisions with potentially misleading data.
I still encourage everyone to remain as open about their perspectives as possible, and take information from multiple sources. With more awareness about sponsored content, I hope people either shift away from diluted journalism, or ask the bodies responsible for protecting consumers from misleading data to create standards. Just as product packaging has become more scrutinized, I would like to see media be held accountable for the information they shovel us.