A view from Chris Blackhurst

Ads and editorial getting too close for comfort

Every so often, on a newspaper, the editor is visited by someone from advertising.

They’ll be carrying an ad proposal and they’ll want an opinion. Either they wish to know whether the ad passes the taste test or if it crosses the line between marketing and editorial. 

If it’s the latter, they’ll be more sheepish. They will have sold the idea of an advertorial to the client and they’ll have pushed as far as they can in making it appear the same as the journalism. They’ll have resisted putting the words "advertisement" or "advertising feature" at the top; they’ll have ensured its content is in the same font, type and size as the paper’s. If they can, they will want it to appear exactly like the editorial.

Versus ad sales, the editor usually has the upper hand. But as circulations have declined, there has been a shift. The ad folk are able to apply increased pressure; they’re the ones who bring in the money.

That’s in print. Online, the balance has tilted further. Frequently, in digital, advertising supplies the only income stream; and there is an unspoken feeling that on the website the usual strictures don’t apply, that standards do not need to be as high. But there are rules and they are clear. The ad industry’s CAP Code states: "Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable." 

Two recent adjudications from the Advertising Standards Authority highlight the tension.

In one, the watchdog upheld a complaint against The Daily Telegraph that it did not do enough to identify an advertorial online for Michelin as marketing. The web page included statements such as "PERFORMANCE DRIVING NEWS" and "As part of the Telegraph’s recent Performance Driving Day, in association with Michelin". In the top right-hand corner, it said "in association with Michelin". The ASA concluded that the commercial nature of the content was not made clear, that it was sponsored and under Michelin’s control.

In the second, a list on BuzzFeed of "14 laundry fails we’ve all experienced" was made to look as though it was a BuzzFeed article. In fact, it was an advertorial written by Dylon. The words "Brand Publisher" appeared at the top of their screen, next to the Dylon name and logo. The ASA said the phrase did not adequately convey that this was an ad for Dylon.

Editors should welcome the ASA’s intervention. It is a warning that going "native" must have clear limits and editors need to get tougher. 

Advertisers must also be realistic, especially where online is concerned. Repeated Michelin and Dylon-type cases can only lead to disillusioned readers.

Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard