Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sponsored Content: The New Ethical Frontier in Advertising

Russ Heltman

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The Dilemma
The businesses of journalism and advertising go hand in hand. Journalism has kept itself financially stable for decades through advertising, and with the movement towards fully digital Journalism, advertising has grown even more important to the industry.

This has brought up a problem for the industry, falling subscription rates paired with less lucrative advertisement spots like banners, are leaving media companies strapped for viable funding. Sponsored content is trying to be the answer for that dilemma.

Mimicking a real story, sponsored content is the practice of promoting a product or service by releasing content that looks like it's from the host site, but is really an advertisement. This new form of advertising has begun to catch on with many popular sites like BuzzFeed, Forbes, and The Atlantic, but its ethical standards have come into question in the process.

The Ethics of Sponsored Content
Native Advertising has been a viable business venture for many of the sites that have adopted its practice, but some sites, such as The Atlantic, have slipped off the ethical slope with their content. Forcing the journalism and public relations worlds to formulate guidelines for the advertising,

The content must be fully disclosed as the product of a sponsor and not the work of the site, this maintains the trust between consumer and publisher. Without that relationship, the journalism world would crumble from a lack of trusting consumers. On top of this, both sides of the consumer spectrum must be allowed to comment on the labeled content.

The Atlantic ran into a disclosure issue with a story sponsored by the church of Scientology, the site ran an advertisement made by the church as a blog post that resembled their usual story format. This destroys an already frayed trust between media outlets and the people they serve.

It is also imperative that sites don’t lose sight of their identity by using too much sponsored content, these stories don’t substitute the true earned media that has been the cornerstone of the industry for decades. 

One of the last big ethical problems facing sponsored content is when it’s created by the news staff of the site. This is a major conflict of interest that shatters the integrity of any organization practicing it; the staff need to be focused on their own stories and judgment, not on bringing in clicks to a sponsored story.

Native Advertising’s Future
Let’s be honest, everyone hates advertisements, that being said they are the reason that media as an industry has survived to this day, and I think sponsored content is an exciting new avenue for how we support sites financially.
It is our job as journalists to keep the sponsored content we put on our sites as ethical as possible because without those standards, the content and the site would crumble. I think the industry is ready for this new chapter in their relationship with advertising, but they could always go the way of the banner, and it’ll be right back to the drawing board.

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