427: Branded Content

How do you feel about “branded content” or “native advertising” ?

Full episode script

Several newspapers ran a syndicated column, quoting New York Times business manager Louis Wiley, saying that nothing that could be considered free publicity should show up in the editorial pages of a newspaper when it should, instead, be set apart as a paid advertisement. Wiley likened this practice of writing about brands and including advertisements on the editorial pages to prostitution of journalism.

It’s an argument that has been heard many times. So what makes this particular column noteworthy? It was written in 1917.

Call it branded content, sponsored content, native advertising, or in-line advertising, there’s a lot of that line-blurring that’s been happening for well over 100 years.

And never without controversy. From the early 1900s 80 page special edition section of a newspaper extolling the virtues of a newly opened hotel (most of which was written by marketers and not clearly marked as such) to Buzzfeed’s branded Facebook Live video of Skittles being sorted for hours, there’s been a lot of debate about content provided by advertisers in a form and fashion that is almost indistinguishable from the original content provided by the platform.

One study in 2015 by researchers at Grady College in Georgia, published in the Journal of Advertising, found that overall, only 17 out of 242 subjects — under 8% — were able to identify native advertising as a paid marketing message in that experiment.

However, a study in 2016 done in partnership with the University of Antwerp found that – quote –

If a brand is explicitly mentioned several times in the text or label, there is a bigger chance the reader will remember the brand. However, advertisers have to make sure not to talk too much about themselves. A high brand prominence ensures a higher brand recall in the short term, but can simultaneously have a negative impact on the image and appreciation of the brand and medium.

All of these considerations is probably why the Society for Professional Journalists include this line in their code of ethics:

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.