Branded content is now as acceptable to consumers as editorial because they are aware of the biases within the media
As featured on The Guardian Website
Branded content is biased. Of course it is – it has a commercial objective. If it wasn’t, there’d be no point in creating it and paying publishers to display it. The concern for some – often many publishers’ editorial teams – is that consumers won’t recognise these biases.
However, you hardly need to be a Chomskian to recognise the partial positions distributed daily within editorial. Many media organisations are blatant in their biases, both politically and towards their commercial interests. That’s because all media is a product. Just like other consumer products it is marketed to a particular target audience. Fox News, The Guardian, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Russia Today all have editorial lines – some express, others largely unspoken but more driven by cultural norms and the commercial realities facing the media title. While some content can challenge consumers’ sensibilities, in the main the media must contain messages that reflect and are acceptable to its target market. Journalists have to follow these editorial lines for the media title’s success, which consequently impacts the success of their career. Content has to contain messages that their target market relates to and that encourage that target market to keep consuming that media title.
THE MORE PARTIAL THE EDITORIAL, THE MORE SUCCESSFUL THAT MEDIA TITLE
In fact, it seems that the more partial the editorial, the more successful that media title. Fox News isn’t known for its objectivity – but neither is it truly recognised for its incredible profitability. The right-leaning network achieved nearly $1bn in revenue over that of CNN which professes a more neutral approach to news reporting.
So when data is published that shows that consumers’ trust in content from brands and publications is pretty much on a par, no-one should really be that surprised. In the US just 2% more consumers trust content from publications (35%) than from brands (33%). Whether due to stereotypical British cynicism or the battering that media industry’s reputation has taken in recent years, UK consumers are significantly less trusting than those in the US. They not only have lower levels of trust in content generally but more consumers in the UK say they actually trust content from brands (27%) than trust content from publications (23%).
Branded content is now as acceptable to consumers as editorial because they are aware of the biases within the media, regardless of the organisation that is producing the content. In fact the prevalence of partisan editorial has eased the acceptability of branded content into consumers’ media intake. Consumers’ cynicism of all content has meant that they don’t discriminate as harshly against branded content as might be thought, even though it has an underlying objective to push product.
After all, the content of even the most neutral media title often has explicit messages encouraging its readers, listeners or viewers to keep consuming content, the most obvious being the “stay right with us” message before commercial breaks, which pushes the media’s own product – the ad space between the content.
However, today’s lack of impartiality in media content – if impartiality ever truly existed – does not permit publishers and brands to relinquish responsibility to consumers. In fact it places greater burdens on both parties to acknowledge their biases to themselves and their consumers. Any potential for partiality must be declared, informing the cynical consumer so they can effectively assess the reliability of the content they’re consuming.
It’s an approach to editorial ethics that has been embraced by the staffers on technology site Re/code. There’s a button next to each byline linking to each journalist’s ethics statement.
The first line of each of these statements commonly reads, “It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.” Just taking a look at Peter Kafka’s ethics statement shows it truly is more than most readers really want to know.
But it’s important it’s there so it can be referenced should a reader have cause for concern.
It’s a policy that speaks to a 2009 statement by Dr David Weinberger of Harvard University’s Berkman Center that “transparency is the new objectivity”. The media can aspire to objectivity, but content will naturally contain biases. Transparency is more achievable than objectivity. It “gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases”.
When it comes to the transparency of branded content, half of consumers feel that it is important they be informed that an advertiser has paid for content to be displayed on a website. Over a third said it was neither important nor unimportant. It’s fair to suggest that these latter figures express a resignation that content has inherent biases, rather than consumers’ carefree attitude, particularly considering that only around one in seven people consider that it is unimportant to be informed that a brand had paid for content to be displayed to them.
Currently the transparency protocol for most media titles presenting branded content involves various combinations of labelling of the content as a ‘paid post’, ‘sponsored content’ or other such differentiator; displaying the brand advertiser’s logo; and using colours to make the content identifiably of a different ilk to those used for the media title’s editorial content. More advanced systems go beyond these fundamentals, by displaying signals to consumers that their action is going to launch branded content rather than editorial, and giving consumers time to consider whether they really opt-in to consuming that content before it’s even launched.
Far from such transparency policies detracting from editorial and branded content, this “nothing to hide” approach encourages greater trust in the content.
To date, resistance to branded content has been most strongly expressed from within media organisations themselves, and not so much from consumers or even regulators. However, the economics of branded content are working for publishers. Publishers aren’t just getting this content from brands for free, they’re actually getting paid to display it. What’s more, the rapid professionalisation and sophistication of many brands’ content production is helping to satiate consumer expectations for even more free, high quality digital content. Hence consumers are increasingly accessing branded content as part of their normal media consumption habits, albeit cynically. With the knowledge that all content has biases – whether editorial or branded content – they might as well.