No More Goose, No More Golden Eggs

Advertising Age's Gavin O'Malley is disturbed that marketing managers are putting money in the pockets of supposedly independent editorial outlets:

Something's rotten with the state of media. Nearly half — 48.9% — of senior marketing executives admit to paying for editorial or broadcast brand placement, according to an industrywide survey just released by PRWeek and PR agency Manning Selvage & Lee.

What's more, the survey of 266 chief marketing officers, marketing VPs and directors found that half of those who haven't paid for placement said they would if the opportunity arose.

"This type of behavior is as harmful to PR professionals as it is to consumers and the media," said Mark Hass, CEO of the Publicis Groupe-owned public-relations agency.

While the publishers mixing editorial and advertising most likely are consumer-product glossies, Mr. Hass said he strongly believes their lax standards harm the image of media in general. "When people see the erosion of concepts like objectivity, they start to lose faith in any organization claiming to be objective."

Interestingly, when PR Week released the survey last month, this particular finding was buried at the end of its story (subscription required). But once they got to it, PR Week raised the same concerns:

But the rise of ad-driven editorial content in both broadcast and print media has led, some say, to a fuzziness of the line separating advertising and editorial. There is a difference between inserting a product into an entertainment property and paying to secure a mention of a product in a more sterile editorial environment – such as a newspaper – says Hass. He notes a survey by sister media firm Starcom MediaVest which found that 65% of consumers thought editorial mentions of a product had been paid for.

News executives might want to keep this consumer perception in mind when contemplating why newspaper circulation is dropping, and why so many ex-readers find the highly subjective blogosphere more reliable. PR and marketing executives might start wondering what kind of strategies they're going be able to sell clients when the "third party credibility" of editorial placements is no longer seen as credible.

It's akin to the issue of broadcasters' use of PR-generated VNRs. Editors have the First Amendment right to publish or broadcast content that someone has paid for. But you can't have it both ways. Either you're independent, or you're not. If you're not, don't pretend you are. Because you'll be found out.

Playwright Jean Giraudoux was the first (of many) to say "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." But that applied to an era when phony sincerity was difficult to uncover. Maybe history will show that paid-for editorial content was the rule, not the exception in decades past. The future will be different. In our time, transparency isn't just a lifestyle choice. It's a law of nature.


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