Casual viewers of the original Star Trek TV series may be surprised to learn that the pilot episode didn’t include any of the show’s familiar faces save Spock. Titled “The Cage,” this adventure saw Captain Christopher Pike (the late Jeffrey Hunter) captured by aliens and forced to live out a series of telepathic illusions alongside an attractive female prisoner. Romance blooms. When they escape, Pike discovers his jailmate is an aged, crippled survivor of an earlier crash, her beauty itself an illusion. The aliens offer to release the captain and care for the woman, restoring her faux youth along with an imaginary Pike as her mate.
In a way, this classic episode sums up my conflicted feelings on the topic of sponsored content.
Also known as native advertising, sponsored content refers to stories published or broadcast by news media but paid for by outside organizations. They’ve been around for as long as I can remember—those articles in magazines that had “Paid Advertisement” printed somewhere on the page. In recent years, sponsored content has proliferated, serving as a big revenue source for every outlet from local news to The New York Times.
My inner turmoil is found where my journalist and PR personae meet.
While almost always labeled as such, sponsored content usually mirrors the design of the medium where it appears. For example, if it’s on a news website, it uses the same fonts and layout. That makes it all too easy to mistake native advertising for a legitimate news article. The journalist in me balks at this. The paid piece may be as accurate and informative as any real news story; then again, it might be pure hooey. And that puts the trust and integrity of the news outlet at risk.
On the other hand, as a communications professional, I welcome this tool for presenting my clients’ stories. In an era of shrinking news space and reporting staff, it’s much harder to land even compelling tales with today’s media. By paying for the privilege (and identifying the content as paid advertising), I’m guaranteed the chance to bring attention to my clients for legitimate stories and accomplishments, just as if they bought a display ad or a radio commercial.
I’m not sure this is a yes-or-no, right-or-wrong issue. Indeed, many of my fellow PR professionals find no conflict whatsoever over this. It’s worth noting, though, that studies found consumers are confused by native advertising, don’t trust the content and question the credibility of outlets that carry it.
For PR pros, there’s an ethical principle at play. If we’re going to play in this space, any content we generate for native advertising must meet the same journalistic standards as a news story. It must be factual, fair and written in clear language. And I would hope any outlet that runs it is fastidious in identifying it as sponsored content, distinct from normal news coverage.
In short, I’m not opposed to using sponsored content. But I do feel an ethical obligation to make sure it’s used to inform, not to spin. Our credibility, our clients’ credibility and that of the news media we work with is at stake. The driving force must be reality, not illusion.