Publishers weigh up the perils and the positives of advertorials

Daily Express rapped by Advertising Standards Authority for disguising an advertorial as a news story

We've all done it. Got halfway through an article before noticing that something isn't quite right. That just because it contains extracts of crushed pearl and real aloe plant, a new deodorant probably isn't worth a half-page feature. Then we realise: the piece is an advertiser promotion.

That mix-up is increasingly likely to happen, as advertorials become more commonplace and more subtle, looking less like promotion and more like journalism.

Earlier this month the Daily Express was again heavily criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for disguising advertorials as news stories – only the week before the paper had been rapped by the watchdog for using the same practice to try and "intentionally" dodge the advertising code.

The most recent adjudication referred to an entire page of the paper dedicated to Goldshield Rozip supplement. The bottom half of the page was an advertisement, while above it was a story promoting to the benefits of the supplement, written by a journalist. In the future, the ASA said, advertising features must be clearly labelled as such by the paper.

Such rulings might not do much for the standing of the Express. But, as marketing budgets become increasingly strained, advertisers seeking better ways to make their brand to stand out are increasingly looking to advertorials – and are prepared to pay a 15% to a 100% premium for editorial tie-ups. Making sure the rules surrounding advertising features are clear has never been more important.

Justine Southall, the publishing director at Cosmopolitan, says that last year the glossy had its best year ever for advertorials – and this year is also on track for a strong result. Advertisers have a growing appetite for advertorials because of the cut-through they offer, she says.

But making sure that the relationship between advertiser and reader is clear is essential. "That includes making sure the point size of 'Cosmopolitan Promotion' is clearly legible," Southall says. And, despite the tough economic conditions, she says her magazine will continue to display commercial messages obviously. "In this market holding the line is undoubtedly more difficult, which is why we are seeing people being less transparent at other publishers. This is really dangerous for the long-term health of a brand."

But signposting an advertorial clearly, while editorially desirable, can also mean that consumers do not feel much compulsion to read it. Advertisers, therefore, are also looking for other ways to attach their brands to editorial.

The trend for tie-ups between brands and editorial started in the free market with the emergence of logos on features, sections, and even news pages, says Vanessa Clifford, the head of press at the media agency Mindshare. Now, other publications have opened themselves up to similar deals – such as book clubs in women's titles supported by a relevant brand, for example.

Clifford believes that brands can enjoy a good relationship with editorial teams. "Our job isn't to bastardise editorial," she says. "If both parties are sensitive to the others values, then brands and editorial can find a way to work seamlessly together."

But what do such developments mean for journalists? A lack of advertising has led to advertising sales teams increasing the pressure on editorial departments to accept commercial partnerships. That is not easy for journalists who have had the importance of impartiality drummed into them.

Journalists at upmarket glossy magazines are used to writing promotional copy, but they are almost always paid freelance rates for doing so. At weeklies, and more downmarket monthlies, journalists are expected to absorb commercial copy into their day jobs for no extra money.

Clifford says that editorial teams have become more open to dialogue with brands than they were a few years ago but she does not think this is because they have been forced to by the commercial situation – but rather because editorial skills are changing in line with the business.

However, one feature editor of a fashion title disagrees. "There isn't a single week that goes by when my sales director doesn't drag me into some kind of commercial conversation," she says. "I am almost becoming immune to it. I am told that it is these kind of deals that ensure job stability so I feel obliged to agree to it. What I am worried about, and what I dedicate my efforts to, is ensuring readers don't get fed up with us pushing a product in editorial space that just doesn't deserve to be there."

Other journalists are more relaxed about advertising features. "They tend to be either competitions or special offers. It's blindingly obvious the difference between straight editorial and these paid-for promotions," says one newspaper section editor.

However, journalists do need to stand up to advertisers looking for editorial coverage. "There have been two occasions in the last month where I have had to stand my ground over an advertiser trying to infiltrate a feature via our commercial team," he says. "But hey, that's probably a sign of the times – and no editor worth their salt is going to allow it."

The ASA's criticism of the Express should serve as a reminder to media owners that it is essential to retain distinct boundaries between paid for advertising, and genuine journalistic impartiality.


Lucy Barrett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
ASA raps Richard Desmond's Express Newspapers over advertorials
Advertising watchdog heavily criticises Express Newspapers for disguising advertorials as features. By Mark Sweney

Mark Sweney

12, Aug, 2009 @6:18 AM

Article image
Express censured for fourth time in two weeks over undeclared advertorials
Daily Express misled readers by implying article was editorial feature, rules ASA. By Stephen Brook

Stephen Brook and agencies

19, Aug, 2009 @8:56 AM

Article image
Newspaper publishers want Christmas to come early
Press looks to retail spending on advertising to lift revenue. By Mark Sweney

Mark Sweney

28, Aug, 2011 @9:45 PM

Bad Science: This column helps you lose weight. Honestly
Ben Goldacre: Journalists can cheerfully make grand claims for a product that would be impossible in any advert

Ben Goldacre

14, Aug, 2009 @11:10 PM

Article image
Health Lottery ad complaints dismissed by ASA
Richard Desmond's lottery cleared after Advertising Standards Authority received complaints its ads misled consumers. By Mark Sweney

Mark Sweney

17, Apr, 2012 @11:01 PM

Daily Express sent readers the wrong way over 'free' road atlas, ASA rules

The advertising regulator has rapped the Daily Express for misleadingly offering readers a 'free' road atlas. By Stephen Brook

Stephen Brook, press correspondent

29, Oct, 2008 @8:18 AM

Article image
ASA rules on mid-market battle

8.30am: The circulation battle between the Daily Mail and the Daily Express intensified today after the advertising watchdog was called in. By Claire Cozens.

Claire Cozens

02, Apr, 2003 @6:37 AM

Article image
ASA grounds Express 'free' flight promotion

8.30am: Express Newspapers has been criticised for running a misleading promotion that claimed to offer free EasyJet flights. By Claire Cozens.

Claire Cozens

12, Jun, 2002 @6:39 AM

Daily Express is the Ryanair of Fleet Street

Express Newspapers has been censured six times in five months by the Advertising Standards Authority – so is there a next step? By Stephen Brook

Stephen Brook

27, Jan, 2010 @11:24 AM

Roy Greenslade on: How the Mail could save the Express

Roy Greenslade on why an unlikely-sounding deal could work.

Roy Greenslade

30, Oct, 2000 @9:32 AM