The Associated Press this week is causing a stir by running ads for Samsung via the wire service's Twitter account. The ads—appearing in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—not only blur the line between editorial church and state, sources say, but also potentially muddy the waters about what brands can do with their social media properties.
Amy Mitchell, acting director for the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, compared the AP's hawking of Twitter ads to embedded marketing via traditional platforms, such as magazines running advertorials or product placement during morning news shows. "With these emerging platforms," she said, "news organizations are trying different things to increase their revenues."
Mitchell added that the Samsung-branded tweets raises the question "whether your audience perceives it as crossing a line because it forces the consumer to parse through what's news and what's paid advertising."
Many of AP's 1.5 million Twitter followers seem to believe the news org is crossing a line. Four sponsored tweets have appeared for Samsung in the AP's account since yesterday. The latest (below) was skewered by AP's followers.
— The Associated Press (@AP) January 8, 2013
@ap have some journalism ethics and stop with the sponsored tweets nonsense please— Tawnie (@Tawnie) January 8, 2013
@ap I subscribe to you for news, not for shit.— Logan (@noirhero) January 8, 2013
Twitter, which has 200 million users and sells ads directly, will not receive cash due to the undisclosed AP-Samsung deal. And while Twitter's policies allow what it calls "external advertising," the AP's play also brings up just how far Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Foursquare will let uncharged brands go with monetizing the social media properties.
"Twitter is setting an interesting precedent," said Carree Syrek, chief strategy officer at Kinetic-Social. "What if Target or Walmart want to start charging CPGs like Procter & Gamble for Foursquare ads? Will the social media platforms allow brands to leverage those properties twice without having to [pay]? Will they let them essentially double dip?"
Todd Defren, CEO of PR firm Shift Communications, added, “This is further evidence of the blurring lines between earned and paid media. The news outlets are crimped for cash, so they're considering unorthodox revenue approaches. Meanwhile, brands are desperate for attention in a saturated media environment so they'll pay a premium to gain audience share from a proven property. I'm not opposed to experimentation, but transparency is key.”
To be fair, the AP is clearly marking the Samsung tweets "SPONSORED." However, it remains to be seen whether a journalism brand can stick to the social ads game without suffering from the potential schlockiness of it all.
Two years ago, longtime Chicago Tribune columnist and syndicated film critic Roger Ebert tested affiliate marketing on Twitter but ultimately gave it up within a few months. In September 2012, The New York Observer ran ads for Mercedes-Benz in its regular stream of Facebook posts but seems to have halted the practice.
Meanwhile, as Mitchell from Pew Research Center suggested, the ads give AP a new income source as news organizations endure severe revenue declines. The wire service didn't respond to interview requests.