HBR.com has just put up a post of mine about some new guidelines for “paid content.” The guidelines come from the PR and marketing communications company Edelman, which creates and places paid content for its clients. (Please read the disclosure that takes up all of paragraph 4 of my post. Short version: Edelman paid for a day of consulting on the guidelines. And, no, that didn’t include me agreeing to write about the guidelines)
I just read the current issue of Wired (Aug.) and was hit by a particularly good example. This issue has a two-page spread on pp. 34-35 that features an info graphic that is stylistically indistinguishable from another info graphic on p. 55. The fact that the two pager is paid content is flagged only by a small Shell logo in the upper left and the words “Wired promotion” in gray text half the height of the “article’s” subhead. It’s just not enough.
Worse, once you figure out that it’s an ad, you start to react to legitimate articles with suspicion. Is the article on the very next page (p. 36) titled “Nerf aims for girls but hits boys too” also paid content? How about the interview with the stars of the new comedy “The World’s End”? And then there’s the article on p. 46 that seems to be nothing but a plug for coins from Kitco. The only reason to think it’s not an ad in disguise is that it mentions a second coin company, Metallium. That’s pretty subtle metadata. Even so, it crossed my mind that maybe the two companies pitched in to pay for the article.
That’s exactly the sort of thought a journal doesn’t want crossing its readers’ minds. The failure to plainly distinguish paid content from unpaid content can subvert the reader’s trust. While I understand the perilous straits of many publications, if they’re going to accept paid content (and that seems like a done deal), then this month’s Wired gives a good illustration of why it’s in their own interest to mark their paid content clearly, using a standardized set of terms, just as the Edelman guidelines suggest.
(And, yes, I am aware of the irony – at best – that my taking money from Edelman raises just the sort of trust issues that I’m decrying in poorly-marked paid content.)