Paying the price for a ‘free’ press

If there’s one thing the British public loves, it’s advertising. We laugh at those quirky comparison site meerkats, cry at the adorable John Lewis penguin, share a warm smile with the lovable BT family, and even feel empowered by the Dove ‘campaign for real beauty’. Wait a minute; no we don’t. Nobody does any of those things! There isn’t a person alive who enjoys adverts. Adverts are terrible.

The only reason that people put up with being interrupted every five minutes is that adverts help to make things really really cheap. As a result, given the choice between paying more for content or putting up with ads, most people would choose to be bombarded with meerkats any day of the week.

While most advertising is little more than harmless puffery, what I do have a problem with is when the line between advertising and genuine ‘content’ starts to blur.

So-called “native advertising” – which disguises itself as editorial content – is becoming increasingly common online. Not only does this type of promoted messaging set out to deliberately confuse readers, it also damages the credibility of the sites upon which it is placed.

As an example, consider some of the UK’s more respected media titles. Last year, the Independent became one of thousands of sites currently spewing ‘promoted content’ via the Outbrain native advertising platform. As a result, the once respected newspaper is now forced to host stories like this:

outbrain

Even worse than native advertising however is the fact that ad revenues are now so vital to newspapers’ survival that advertisers are able to exert significant influence over genuine editorial content. As print circulations decline, publishers are increasingly forced to rely on advertisers as the sole contributors to their sites. As a result, rather than attempting to please their audiences, editors and publishers are now forced to bow before their new “customers” – the advertisers.

While most journalists will claim that they would never let advertisers influence the content of their work, the truth is that we are already starting to see instances where this simply isn’t true.

Last week, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith admitted that some articles have been removed from the site because they were critical of key advertising partners. In one instance, Buzzfeed staff facetiously referred to Unilever’s “Lynx Effect” campaign as advocating “worldwide mass rape.” Following an internal complaint from Unilever – a core advertiser on the Buzzfeed network – the article mysteriously disappeared overnight.

Rather than attempting to please their audiences, editors and publishers are now forced to bow before their new “customers” – the advertisers.

And it’s not just viral cesspools like Buzzfeed that are caving to advertising pressure. In February this year, Peter Oborne resigned as Chief Political Commentator of the Telegraph after the paper censored his efforts to disclose tax avoidance at HSBC. While the Telegraph claimed the story was never published as a result of an unspecified “legal problem”, Oborne later revealed that the paper did not want to lose HSBC as a key advertising partner. It was not until the story broke elsewhere that the Telegraph felt obliged to devote a whole 5 paragraphs(!) to it in the paper’s business supplement.

And it wasn’t just the Telegraph that bowed to advertising pressure. After the story was announced in the mainstream media, investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed decided to delve deeper into the plot. From this independent investigation, Nafeez found that HSBC’s record was far worse than previously imagined, totalling an estimated “£1 billion” worth of fraud. Strangely however, even the left-wing Guardian – which retains multiple corporate ties with HSBC – failed to report on this finding. (You can find out more the media’s ties to HSBC in this excellent Media Lens exposé.)

The sad truth of the matter is that so-called ‘sponsor bias’ is as old as the media itself. Even as far back as the 1980s – before newspapers had to compete in the online environment – the media were still letting advertisers influence their content. In one infamous case from 1988, the ‘liberal’ Guardian refused to publish content from Greenpeace in case it offended the Ford motor company – at that point the largest advertiser in the UK.

This blatant disregard for editorial standards is still happening to this day. In a typical case of history repeating itself, in 2010 an advert for Amnesty International was pulled from the FT for running the risk of offending Shell – a key advertiser for the Pearson publishing group (owners of the FT).

This is an issue that is ingrained in our media culture, and it’s an issue that won’t be going anywhere soon. In fact, with ever more publications going online for free, the problem is only going to get worse. As long as consumers are unwilling to pay for online content, the media will be increasingly forced to rely on advertising dollars to generate any kind of significant revenue.

Online content may be free, but that doesn’t mean that it comes without a price.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
Miserablist, whiskey-drinker, and general tinpot shambles. Alex Warren has a weary pessimism for all things media, politics and tech.