The Plausible Deniability of Advertorials

I’ve railed before against the slippery slope toward unrecognizable advertorial content in newspapers and magazines. This is the latest example, from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun. Which of these pages is advertorial content? Click to see larger versions.

Editorial  Advertorial

It doesn’t help that I chose a colour page and a black and white page to compare, but the page on the right is advertorial, paid for by (presumably) Penticton Tourism.

I know that times are tough in the media industry, but this feels like a new low in deceiving the reader. The layout of the advertorial page is incredibly similar to that of the editorial page. Yes, there are five columns instead of six, and the byline plus headshot box is laid out a little differently, but those are pretty subtle differences.

The page is labeled “Special Information Feature”, a common bit of a double-speak for advertorial pages. What does that make the rest of the paper, “Normal Information”?

An Unearned Air of Credibility

The added wrinkle for this page is identifying Claire Newell, a trusted public figure as the writer. She’s lending her brand to this particular deception, increasing its unearned air of credibility.

The obvious intent here is to convince the reader that this page is like any other in the newspaper, while providing a modicum of plausible deniability. If they genuinely wanted to disclose that this page was different from the rest of the paper, then they would radically alter the layout and boldly label the page “Advertisement”.

For me, advertorials exist in seriously murky ethical waters. A cynic might point out that advertisers probably get preferential treatment in editorial coverage anyway, but I’d rather not think quite that cynically.

Do you think this kind of advertorial is an acceptable way to do business?


  1. My experience is much more firmly in the camp of industry publications than mainstream mass media, but considering the preferential treatment I know advertisers get in editorial coverage, I’m not really surprised, or concerned.

    Knowing how overworked and under-resourced journalists and editors are, and seeing first-hand how the stories that are printed are those which are easy or those which come with money (ideally both), I really don’t put any sort of journalistic trust in any publications these days.

    Not that they aren’t still useful and potentially informative, just that they should be taken with a large lick-worth of salt.

    And considering this isn’t exactly new, and is only getting worse, for me the complaint about advertorials is a bit like closing the barn door once the horse is long gone.

  2. The paper should not fear putting “PAID ADVERTISEMENT” at the top of the advertorial pages, as they used to do. Indeed, they should make a point of it; otherwise they are blatantly trying to confuse their readers.

    That said, specific sections of newspapers, such as real estate, travel, and automotive, have always seemed to be slaves to the advertisers in those sections, at least indirectly. When was the last time those sections of the Sun (as opposed to the “regular” news sections) wrote about, say, shoddy building practices, bad hotels you shouldn’t stay at, or genuinely crappy new cars?

    In effect, specialty sections of the newspaper have been all advertorial for decades now.

  3. I think a more pointed question may be is this what Tourism Penticton would consider an acceptable way to do business?

    Seems to me the paper is promising one thing — a distinction and separation between editorial and advertising — and delivering another. All sorts of excuses can be applied to why this is happening. But the promise and delivery on that promise are not in doubt.

    As readers, we draw may conclusions from the form of the media — an image expands on the meaning of a story it runs with, a bi-lined story has more credibility that a wire service, an editorial page presents opinions of the organization behind the newspaper.

    Here, I think we must draw the conclusion that Tourism Penticton believe that it’s acceptable to promise one thing and deliver another. In fact, they’re paying for it.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. I worked at a large blog whose sales team treated their audience as a renewable resource. Blurring the line between editorial and paid advertisement is a slippery slope and will ultimately lead to your most loyal audience feeling betrayed.

    Darren, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on a post I wrote called Adding Responsibility To Digital Sales where I discuss tactics that will help ensure advertising adds value to the user experience.

  5. I was ranting about this practice this afternoon as I read today’s Whistler Question newspaper. Atop a half-page box of text – same typeface, same layout as the rest of the paper – is a small line that says Advertising Feature. But what got me was the by-line was that of one of the paper’s reporters along with her newspaper email address. Very misleading! A slippery slope indeed.

  6. I was a bit disheartened to find out about the blurred line between editorial and advertorial about four years ago.Now I just accept it as fact and act accordingly.

    Even when reporters are doing editorial content, they don’t have time and money to do thorough investigations on most of the items they report on. I have and always try to think critically about anything I read. With the internet it makes it easier to at least check multiple sources, although all those multiple sources can be all biased the same way as well.

    I always approach anything I read trying to figure out the agenda of the writer and the publication. I generally follow the guideline thought that as long as information is accurate and I’m interested, I will give it a read.

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