Advertorials: Blurring the dividing line

IN Media Practice | 31/07/2004
Eight people in a sample of forty were able to distinguish between editorial content and advertorials
 

Deepti Mahajan

 

Advertisements are an important source of revenue for the media and thus occupy a substantial proportion of space in newspapers and magazines today. The remaining space is increasingly being occupied by fashion, entertainment and trivia, in order to maximise readership and advertiser base. The print media are functioning in a ‘dual-product market’. Journalists and editors produce "popular" newspaper content in order to attract readers, and access to readers is then priced and sold to advertisers.

 

Advertising needs often generate new media products and contribute to media trends and vocabulary. The ‘advertorial’ is one such contribution. An advertorial is an advertisement (text or other content occupying paid-for space), masquerading as editorial content. It is clearly another money-making proposition for the publication. The advertisers welcome such an initiative for editorial content is trusted more than ads. However, the same argument is used by media-persons opposing it. Many a times, the readers do not know what they are reading lacks the credibility of editorial matter. The media in such cases choose not to clearly state the fact of an advertorial being one.

 

The rising influence of advertising has spelt significant changes for the press in India, in terms of both format and content.

 

Content not king anymore

Since advertisers are not interested in media products, except as a kind of bait to lure audiences and expose them to advertisements, the press in its attempt to retain advertisers, seeks forms of news that are advertiser-friendly and entertaining to readers. Subjects appealing to the upper and middle class readers, who form a valuable market for advertisers, dominate pages of newspapers and magazines. There is rarely news about the poor, except when they break the law or become beneficiaries of the charity of the rich. Entertainment-oriented coverage meets advertisers’ agenda. Coverage of music, computers, food and fashion, for example, is prominent in news for it attracts advertising revenue from companies that sell products in these industries.

 

Subtle bias

Some critics have suggested that advertisers have the ability to influence content of news and tilt the balance in their favour. News usually depicts advertisers’ or/and their products in a favourable light. The dynamics, however, are not as simple as either routine intervention by advertisers to protect their interests (although this does happen) or daily compliance with advertisers’ agendas by reporters. The influence operates on several levels. Reports and editors are aware of the economic role of major advertisers. A dominant influence in this regard is probably more akin to self-censorship[i].

 

New media products

Advertising needs lead to the development of new media products. Supplements and topical pull-outs are products born out of such needs. Main newspapers/supplements and newsmagazines carry a variety of features - beauty and healthcare, fashion and technology - that exist largely to support the accompanying ads. At times, pull-outs carry features and ads aimed at selling one particular brand. Tourism ministries of countries/states are increasingly using pull-outs and special features as an advertising vehicle.

 

Interest-specific supplements like ‘Education Times’ (of The Times of India), ‘Ascent’ (of The Times of India), ‘HT Careers’ (of the Hindustan Times) etc. and subsidiary publications like the ‘Outlook Traveller’ and ‘India Today travelPLUS’ allow the advertisers to narrowcast their messages. Ads also make their way, through various media into unlikely places such as classrooms. News publications aimed at a young readership are distributed free or at a nominal rate in schools, providing the advertisers a direct pipeline to the youth market.

 

Intrusive advertisements

Technology allows for immense experimentation with design and page-layouts. Text can be made to adjust according to an irregular graphic in an advertisement. Do not be surprised, if the day HBO airs a movie about the superhero, Spiderman tears out of the newspaper page, regardless of column formats, making it difficult to locate parts of one story scattered all over the page. Headlines on a page carrying a Pepsi Blue ad may be printed in blue to add zing to the advertisement.

 

Anything goes to get noticed. It is argued that in an environment flooded with marketing messages, more than presence is required to be noticed. Many readers may skip ads while reading, but a pizza bang in the middle of news stories does not escape notice. The Times of India on February 2, 2004 carried a United Trust of India advertisement, which contained images of a baby. The images, displayed from top left to bottom right of the page in-between text, certainly made for difficult reading of news but inevitably lead the reader to read the body copy of the advertisement at the bottom of the page. For the advertiser it makes for smart investment even though an intrusive, or some may say innovative ad may cost him at least 25 per cent more than an ad on a blank page. The question that arises is how much space a newspaper or magazine is ready to concede to the imagination of advertising agencies and the motives of advertisers.

 

Creativity and variety are welcome, but when these cause the news to move away from objectivity and the pleasure of reading, it is time to draw a line.

 

We are now witnessing new ideas and initiatives which emerge from the liaison between the press and the advertisers. Advertorials and advertising features are manifestations of this necessary though at times dubious relationship between the two.

 

Advertorials and Marketing Features: Formats 

The blurring of lines between editorial content and advertisements takes several forms. An advertorial is text or other content, occupying paid-for space, masquerading as editorial content. This is akin to an infomercial on television. An infomercial is a television programme which is simply an extended commercial for an advertiser but looks like regular programming. Their use has become frequent since the proliferation of channels made possible by cable and satellite delivery.[ii] An advertorial is an attempt to add editorial authenticity to the advertiser’s claims. Advertorials can now be spotted in main newspapers, supplements and magazines. Some magazine houses have made advertorials regular elements of the magazine, for instance India Today, Outlook and The Week. Many a times, readers remain unaware of the fact that they are reading paid-for content, for the publication does not state the same or states it in a manner that  easily escapes a reader’s notice.

 

Sometimes, an advertorial is used as supporting ‘editorial’copy with an advertisement. In such cases, the advertiser buys the entire space including that used for the text. 

 

Advertorials follow the journalistic feature format. When addressing a political theme, the (journalistic) feature writer must convince the reader of his or her ‘objectivity’ as a journalist, while at the same time pressing a personal agenda. Features straddle the line between the hard news which is the staple of a newspaper, and the column, where its ‘priestly pundits’ wax eloquent (or indignant) about the events of the day.[iii] This characteristic of this genre of writing has, in effect, been misused to club advertorials into features.

 

While reading a newspaper or a magazine, a reader trusts the journalist’s news sense and values to adjudge for her, what is news worthy and what is not. She believes that a journalist strives to present the facts as they are, without giving-in to any inducements. Selling news space, which belongs to objective news and expert viewpoints, is a breach of the trust the reader places in the newspaper or magazine.

 

The story of enterprise and perseverance of an industrialist who transformed a down-in-the-dumps company to a multi-crore empire, appearing in a newsmagazine, leaves the reader with the impression that the journalist judged the merit of the story on its ability to evoke empathy on part of the reader and highlight the achievements of an individual as a role model. However, if such a story is a paid feature intended to build the image of the industry and its owner, it is a different ball game altogether.

 

Newspapers now carry paid articles about companies, new ventures, product launches and even personal functions. The Times of India supplement Delhi Times’ first page picture is the perfect platform for a staged event/photo-shoot. Industry associations use advertorials as a tool for lobbying and highlighting the concerns of their respective industries.

 

The reader is central to any debate about the print media. After all, the media, along with other players like advertisers and public relations professionals, function to reach the reader. Media persons make casual references to the readers’ opinion, which is often discussed as leaning towards the individual’s own orientation on the issue. But many questions remain unanswered. Are readers aware of the distinction between advertorial and editorial content? Do they care about editorial integrity? If yes, are they satisfied with the fare being offered to them? Are they looking for change?

 

I attempted, though on a small scale, to find answers to some of these questions. I conducted a survey among forty people. Four categories made the sample - an equal number of students, professionals, housewives and businessmen. The subjects were in the age group of 18-55 years. The survey results emerged from free-flowing conversations that I had with the people. Each person was shown five advertorials - only one clearly marked as such.

 

Almost all participants (except three) agreed that the commercialisation of the print media is adversely affecting newspaper content and that advertising takes up unacceptable proportions of space in newspapers and magazines. An equal number agreed that the print media needs to shift focus to people’s issues.

 

The students surveyed included college students pursuing their graduation or post graduation. Seven said that they are regular readers of The Times of India, out of which only one claimed to know about Medianet. All except one was able to recognise an advertorial marked as an ‘advertorial’ as paid-for content. Two students out of ten were able to recognise the other advertorials shown to them. The rest passed them off as news articles.

 

Amongst the housewives, only one pointed out the advertorials from news. In the category of professionals, four were able to do so, while amongst businessmen, one.

 

This leaves us with eight people in a sample of forty who were able to distinguish between editorial content and advertorials. Most of the people comprising the sample were able to recognise an advertorial when it was marked as such in clear and readable text.

 

 The survey results are only an indication that the reader is being taken for a ride, being fed on a diet of ‘news’ that perhaps does not deserve the space it occupies. A survey covering a small sample of forty people may not be representative of general public opinion and awareness. The readership of the English press in India cannot be treated as a monolith. There is no dearth of readers who take all that a newspaper/newsmagazine says, at its face value. At the same time, there are readers who question and analyse, and read three newspapers everyday to get the ‘whole’ picture. Nevertheless, the results can be seen as a pointer to the trends in public opinion.

 

An oft-repeated question in the debate is why newspapers selling editorial space remain popular. It is not difficult to find an odd letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine featured in the ‘letters’ columns, complaining about the deterioration of news content and increasing commercialisation of the news media. The media debate in the Hindustan times elicited some reactions from readers. But there is not a very strong reaction from the readers as a whole. There are a number of reasons for this.

 

One main reason for this is that newspapers are habit-forming and it is not easy to switch from one to another. The reader therefore continues to put up with whatever his newspaper offers him. This is however not as true for magazines.

 

Secondly, the reader is perhaps unaware that the magazine/newspaper she is reading is selling editorial space and cheating her. The third reason could be as T.N.Ninan put it, "…readers choose a newspaper for several attributes, of which editorial integrity may be just one. A paper may have the most comprehensive classified advertisements, useful when you want to rent a flat or sell a car… Then a paper may have the best TV review columns. It may offer a free plastic chair in return for a three-month subscription (as some Hindi newspapers do). Or, simply, everyone in the neighbourhood reads it. And so on."[iv]  

 

Fourthly, the silent acceptance is to do with the Indian psyche. In India, ‘public’ reaction to happenings is very private. Such a private ‘public’ reaction is of no consequence and the reader needs to be more proactive. 

 

The reader, keeping in view the current media scenario, has become a mere pawn on the chessboard of media economics. There is need for a complete overhaul of the media system to effect change. What is also required is a more aware and conscious readership. The onus to safeguard the ideals of journalism lies on the readers too. 

Deepti Mahajan is a student. This is extracted from her final year dissertation at Lady Sriram College. 


[i] Self-censorship refers to the ways reporters doubt themselves, tone down their work, omit small items, or drop stories to avoid pressure, eliminate any perception of bias, or advance their careers. (Croteau and Hoynes, 2000)

[ii] Ray Eldon Hiebert, Sheila Jean Gibbons. Exploring Mass Media For A Changing World. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.pp.19

[iii] Brian McNair. ‘ The media as political actors’. An Introduction to Political Communication. London: Routledge, 1995. pp. 73.

[iv] T.N.Ninan, Editor, Business Standard. ‘All the news space that’s fit to sell’, Hindustan Times, February 19, 2003.

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