Every serious newspaper reader must have seen it coming. Have you ever wondered how long were the legs of those advertorials that tell you in five simple tricks how to learn 11 languages in a fortnight, boost your sex life, lose those unwanted pounds eating something that looks like a Jurassic fruit, as well as photos of celebrities before they became rich and famous. That newspapers have begun to restrict them or ban them altogether, as the New York Times reports, goes on to show that readers are really discerning. They will not bite the bait of racy content and headlines that incite curiosity. More to the point, however, news sites, including The New York Times and Salon, have realized that this kind of content may undermine their image. There is already the perception that news sites, no matter if they are those of legacy names or not, are seen as the poor cousins of print, as recent research suggests. Sensationalist writing appeals, as the name of this genre indicates, to our basest instincts. We have to say, however, that the ax is falling on the guilty as well as the just. Smart advertorials, we believe, have a role to play in an era in which people appear to have little patience for conventional advertising but would eagerly consume intelligent content, even when they are duly warned that it is paid and has commercial intent. It is to be regretted that poor quality titles should sacrifice those that serve a legitimate and useful goal.
Since The Washington Post was bought by Jeff Bezos in August 2013, the newspaper has been scoring points in the very challenging media landscape. And in October last year, it attained what would be the gold standard: it surpassed the online readership of The New York Times by one million readers, with 67 million unique visitors. How did they pull it off? By courting each reader, says Ryan Kellett, Audience and Engagement Editor of the Post. “Today, the Post’s aura of prestige is not enough,” he says in an interview with La Nación, an Argentine newspaper. A lot of people do not even know that the newspaper, which famously exposed the Watergate scandal, even exists, according to Kellett. “We have to go out and look for readers on every platform and attract them.” And, vitally, they need to pay for it, he says, as the newspaper offers them the quality that has earned it 70 Pulitzer prizes. Yet, this means that prime content is no longer as relevant as capturing an audience swarming in information. What matters, in other words, are the middlemen: the technological resources that allow media companies to reach out. Even if you have a sensational bit of news that may change the world, its importance is nil if it is missing on the social networks or online platforms on your cellphone.
When it comes to advertising, companies are learning not to sail against the wind. If you are active on social networks, you may have noticed raving reviews of everything from soccer balls and shoes to PlayStation consoles that celebrities post, full with their pictures with the coveted object.
So far, so good? Not really. The Federal Trade Commission and watchdogs have cried foul for this surreptitious form of publicity. And stars have responded swiftly, in the form of a hashtag. So, #ad, #sp, #paid, and the like are now accepted forms of advertisingon Instagram, Snapchat and other social platforms. And that is legit, apparently.
Big names are profiting from this new form of commercial promotion, from Kim Kardashian and her family of socialites to Warner Brothers. But as the lines separating commercial content from news and social media posts are getting blurred, the future of advertising remains up in the air. The traditional model is certainly in crisis, but it is not clear what is going to take its place.