Redrawing the Line Between Content and Commerce

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Product Placement
When a product appears, sometimes prominently, sometimes off-handedly in an entertainment site, this is known as product placement. (Think of James Bond careening down a mountain road in his Aston Martin or BMW Z3). Ford Motor Company has recently picked up much of the tab for three online films at, all of which feature Ford Focus cars.

Embedded Links
When hyperlinks appear in editorial content, there is usually no way to tell if they are there to link to material to further inform you or to persuade you to buy something. For example, online pharmacies often link you to scientifically based health information, in which links to relevant products are also included.

Custom Publishing
Custom publishing is targeted, advertiser- created content and has become a major trend on the Web. Because self-publishing is so much cheaper on the Web, and because there are no enforceable regulations yet, there is a greater possibility of skewed information or advertising disguised as news and reports. Sony Corporation, the entertainment conglomerate, launched its own entertainment news service, Infobeat. Kimberly-Clark, manufacturer of Kleenex and disposable diapers, has built a popular content site featuring its own Huggies brand. John Nardone, president of international media for Modem Media, a digital consultancy, said in a December 2000 interview with Folio magazine, "Whether consumers care depends entirely on the context. If it's a young mom looking for info about diaper rash, I think she's just as happy getting quality information from Pampers as Dr. Spock. But if it's an investor, he damn well wants reliable third-party information-not just stuff from the company [selling the product or service]."

Can We Come Together On This?
Marketers contend that people are much more media-savvy today, that we have lived all our lives with advertising and can distinguish the commercial from the editorial quite nicely, thank you. According to John Borthwick, founding publisher of Total New York and now vice president of new product development at AOL, "We all knew that this medium would require new revenue models, new thinking, new approaches. But the existing media system yelled, 'NO-hold up! We can retrofit our model onto this medium.' It doesn't work, and it is time for us to start to acknowledge that."

Those who attempt to bridge the gap between informing and selling say they are embracing the very nature of the Web: To integrate things in one place. This integration has been variously described as "solutions," "seamless environments," "functionality." Witness the meteoric rise of the QVC Shopping Network or the phenomenon of the infomercial. Dr. Samir Husni, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, says, "This strict separation (of editorial and merchandising) has become outmoded. Journalism is a business, like any other. Being able to buy the product is a service to the readers."

Those who advocate disclosure or labeling of advertising in any incarnation insist, at the very least, on some sort of visual cues to separate the ad material from the editorial. One proposal has been to use universal symbols or a distinctive color for commercial links, as opposed to educational or informational links. Christopher Barr, Editor-at-Large of CNet and co-chair of the Internet Content Coalition, a nonprofit trade association trying to keep the Net self-regulated, said, "Almost anything goes, as long as the reader knows what is going on."

Notwithstanding all the smoke and mirrors, the deals-bottom-line-simply represent the need to bring in the money to survive and prosper. However, publishers need to be very clear about what it is that readers seek them out for. If it is authority and credibility, they need to be particularly cautious in sculpting their deals. Trust is a precious commodity, and any content site or advertiser who abuses it faces abandonment by consumers in the form of lapsed subscriptions, lost sales, and other rejection. Says J.D. Lasica of The Online Journalism Review, "There will always be readers who don't trust anything on a site if you sell things (dooming all content sites), just as there are some people who don't trust newspapers or broadcast news because they sell advertising (dooming all media, except for Ms. magazine and Consumer Reports). Like it or not, advertising is what helps keep content sites afloat."

American Society of Magazine Editors Guidelines
ASME has led the movement to provide guidelines to editors and publishers regarding the separation of advertising and editorial content on the Internet. Although the Society doesn't have legal or regulatory "force" behind it, a publication which "willfully or repeatedly" violates these guidelines will be declared ineligible for the National Magazine awards, and, if a member of ASME, may be expelled. Here are the salient points, extracted from ASME's Best Practices for Digital Media, 10th edition, October 2000.

  • The home page and all subsequent pages of a publication should prominently disclose the publication's name and logo to clarify who controls the content of the site.
  • At no time should a magazine's name, logo, or editorial staff be used in a way that suggests editorial endorsement of an advertiser. Editorial staff should not create advertising copy for the publication.
  • All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertised or sponsored content.
  • Special advertising or "advertorial" features should be labeled as such. If hypertext links within the editorial content of a site are paid for by advertisers, that should be disclosed to users.
  • Ecommerce commissions and other affiliate fees should be reported on a disclosure page.
  • Advertising...should not be placed adjacent to related editorial material in a manner that implies editorial endorsement of the advertised product or service.

Web Sites For More Information

Interactive Advertising Bureau

Internet Content Coalition

Online Journalism Review

Poynter Institute

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