For years in the news business, when I was in management in the newsroom, I fought a behind-the-scenes battle with my friends in the advertising department.
No, advertisements shouldn’t look like news stories. Ads that did seem like they were news copy should carry a clear statement that they were actually advertising. And ads shouldn’t even be allowed to use the same fonts that we used on news items, so that readers would know clearly what was an ad, and what was news.
I won sometimes, lost occasionally. Sometimes, I lost when ad reps took the position it was better to seek forgiveness after the fact than to take the risk of asking permission beforehand.
Why is this important now?
Well, perhaps because illustrating how clearly we took our editorial responsibilities to keep news and advertising separate back then should cause some serious thought about what’s happening in the advertising business now. (By the way, that separation existed in many news organizations; when I worked for five years at CBC, local ad reps were on the other side of the building, separated completely from news, and there were probably some ad reps then that I saw so little of that I couldn’t even name them.)
But now, advertising is creeping into news in some very interesting ways. There’s sponsored content, of course, where even major news outlets write glowing stories about the businesses that are paying for, well, glowing stories. But at least that work is supposed to be fully identified.
On a darker side is the world of social media influencers.
CBC’s Hannah Thibedeau wrote a story late last week talking about the way the federal government is moving into advertising on social media. In one case, a prominent YouTube lifestyles writer in Quebec was paid to do online warnings about opioid abuse.
In another case, a HGTV celebrity, Bryan Baeumler, was paid $133,000 to make people aware of flood proofing plans on behalf of Public Safety Canada.
There’s a reason that so-called “influencers” have credibility: it’s because people think the words they’re saying or posting are their own, not anyone else’s.
That’s all well and good; certainly, plenty of companies and governments are looking at ways to reach people who are no longer getting the message through traditional news sources.
The concern for me is the question of transparency. The following quotes are from Thibedeau’s story: “Social media influencers have access to large audiences, where they have established credibility and authority on issues that matter to Canadians,” said Public Safety Canada’s Tim Warmington. “By partnering with influencers and leveraging their reach, we can seek to engage with Canadians while making efficient use of public funds.”
There’s a reason that so-called “influencers” have credibility: it’s because people think the words they’re saying or posting are their own, not anyone else’s. What they have to offer is their influence, their “leverage”; it’s also what they apparently have to sell.
In other words, people think that what an influencer is saying is what they actually believe, not just something they are being paid to say.
Now, sometimes, websites include low-impact statements like “this piece was sponsored by …” but the nature of that sponsorship isn’t fully spelled out. How much input and control are exerted by the client? Does the client read and approve the message? Does the client actually write the message?
Does an internet celebrity chef really think one product is the very best, or does $10,000 in sponsorship make that product all the more attractive to him or her?
All are questions that bear careful analysis. It’s pretty clear when building product companies pay a fee to have their products used in plain view on home renovation shows.
It should have to be clear who’s paying the piper when you’re listening to someone play a tune.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wanersky.