The spread of native advertising, also known as “sponsored content,” has provoked no shortage of comment and concern. What’s different about a revealing piece in the latest issue of The Baffler is its inside perspective—a peek inside the practice from a freelance journalist who wrote an IBM/Twitter advertorial for The Atlantic. Jacob Silverman’s dispatch from the world of exciting brand partnerships captures the bizarre process of writing ad copy that’s designed to look like a news article. “It was clear that all parties—The Atlantic, IBM, Twitter, and especially me, with my reservations about taking the assignment in the first place—wanted this exercise to resemble real journalism,” he writes.
Silverman’s revealing account shows what an odd job this is—requiring the “reporter” to conduct interviews that aren’t really interviews, work with editors who are not (in any familiar sense) editing, and produce ersatz journalism that obscures instead of edifying. Questions are submitted in advance to breathless yet uninformative executives, there’s close involvement from clients’ PR reps, and (of course) the pay is far more than freelance writers are accustomed to. That final factor convinces Silverman to file despite the seaminess of the whole thing, and it’s a powerful reminder of why this work proves so tempting. “I submitted some paperwork, and a month later, a check arrived for $2,000. Except for my book advance,” he writes, “it was the most I had ever received for a single piece of writing.” Indeed, Silverman notes, it’s more than 13 times what he’d received in the past for writing an actual piece for The Atlantic’s website.
The obvious danger posed by this discrepancy is a talent exodus from journalism into PR. But there are other risks, too. Silverman notes that the evangelists of sponsored content like to portray it as a win for everyone concerned—but in a perceptive observation, he also suggests that the practice (which is supposed to save journalism) actually becomes more of a threat to it the more successful it becomes:
[W]ho would bother pitching a story to The Atlantic for $100 when you could pitch yourself as a copywriter and make twenty times as much? And why would a Fortune 500 executive respond to a journalist’s questions when he could just hire The Atlantic to produce a glittering, 1,200-word advertorial instead and then buy some promoted tweets to ensure it racks up shares?
In this frightening—and not terribly far-fetched—scenario, a successful blurring of the lines between journalism and advertising decisively tips the balance of power in favor of the latter. The entire point of sponsored content is to mimic the style and tone of journalism, so that readers don’t realize they’re reading an advertisement. To the extent that sponsored content falls away from that kind of mimicry, it’s no longer special—just another ad that readers can skip over, or register as deceptive by design. Advertising in the form of sponsored content has credibility and power only to the extent that it gives readers the impression of being actual journalism.
For cash-strapped publications, this is a special kind of threat. Marketers, with the blessing of the business sides of major publications and aided by experienced reporters and editors, will soon be able to produce ad copy that even careful readers will have a hard time distinguishing from the real thing. (Only those newsroom holdouts who insist on bright red lines marking off sponsored content will voice resistance to this trend—and they’ll always be up against financial pressures, to say nothing of the nature of the format itself.) If sponsored content reaches this level of sophistication, corporations will find it far less costly to block or otherwise obstruct news coverage. As Silverman’s imagined example shows, the threat of bad press would no longer seem compelling to any executive who understands that a counterbalancing positive “story” can be placed in the same publication for a relative pittance.
What’s being imagined here is no simple PR campaign. After the Gulf oil spill, BP could buy whole-page apology ads in all of the major newspapers, but those somehow rang hollow alongside reporters’ searing exposes of the company’s negligence and culpability. From BP’s perspective, the sponsored content it placed in Politico (headline: “No, BP Didn’t Ruin the Gulf”) was probably a better investment. Now imagine a future in which the writing, style, and presentation of those articles are nearly indistinguishable from a news article; when there are fewer reporters around to correct the PR narrative because they’ve all entered that very industry in order to pay rent; and when desperate publications convince themselves that, well, this is still better than going out of business. We’re not all the way there yet, but thanks to Silverman’s piece, we can’t say we weren’t warned.