Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Evolving Advertisement and Sponsored Content

Ethan Gates

In the past, advertisements have always been easy to spot; products presented in over-dramatized situations to show usefulness or just obvious product placement in movies. But with the rise of the Internet, ads have evolved and become increasingly more difficult to sort out. This is due to the rise of sponsored content and native advertising.

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, sponsored content/native advertising is, "Material in an online publication which resembles the publication's editorial content but is paid for by an advertiser and intended to promote the advertiser's product." By nature, it's designed to influence people in more real-feeling text, rather than sensationalized improbable situations.

Video clip from Wayne's World (1992). Pulled from YouTube

The issues many media sites are facing now is a lack of transparency between sponsored content and genuine editorials. While most websites will label when content is "sponsored," they do so in ways that is not immediately prevalent upon pulling up the page. Facebook will hide "sponsored" in small print while Twitter places "promoted" at the end of the content in faded font. Some websites are immediately transparent about sponsored content. Reddit puts borders around paid for links emblazoned with, "sponsored" as well as a link to, "what's this?" taking you directly to explanations of their sponsored link requirements. 

Via All Things D. Example of Reddit's advertising.

Sponsored content has become incredibly deceptive in most situations. The average reader will not be able to quickly discern what is editorial content and what is promoting a product. To avoid this, it is only reasonable that these types of articles should be appropriately labeled to accurately inform the reader of what they are about to digest. There are other ways in which this can be done ethically. 

Richard Edelman has composed a set of guidelines for which sponsored content should follow. Summarized by the Harvard Business Review, Edelman's guidelines invoke some simple rules - clearly label content that has been paid for - and some that are a little more complex: "sponsored content programs will be primarily utilized to amplify that which is owned and/or earned media - not replace it." This is not a clear-cut definition and gray areas will be expected but this seeks to protect journalism from compromising its own ethical standards.

Sponsored content has already taken a hold on the ways most media sites conduct themselves. Almost every Google search today will yield at least one form of sponsored content. It's becoming almost overwhelming. I find myself occasionally succumbing to the deceptive tendrils of a paid-for promotions on sites I routinely visit. In a report by MediaKixx, it was found that 93% of the most followed celebrities violated the FTC's regulations on social media endorsements.

South Park used its national platform to address the issue; albeit sarcastically. In episode eight of their nineteenth season, South Park released "Sponsored Content," the first of a three-episode arc leading up to the season finally. The episode parodies the barrage of online native advertising and click-baits we deal with today. In the video below, character Jimmy Valmar narrates an over-simplified explanation of how ads have "evolved" over the years with a humorous interpretation that ads have now taken "human form."

"Ridding the World of Ada" Via YouTube

Yes, it's obviously over-dramatized but writers Trey Smith and Matt Parker illustrate a good point. Paid content has become far more difficult to identify accurately than it should have ever been allowed. While we're (thankfully) many years away from a sentient "ad," we should always remain conscious and skeptical of the content we are reading. 

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