Sponsored Content: Essential Branding Tool, Death of Journalism or Both?

“Let me tell you a story about our sponsor…”

The chorus has spoken: brands who don’t jump on the sponsored content train are destined for the banner ad dustbin.

But is it true? David Carr of The New York Times isn’t so sure. Joe McCamby—a designer who created the very first banner ad in 1994 when MTV still played Nirvana videos and Facebook was the name of your high school art project—thinks the increasingly grey line between journalism and advertising could end up hurting publishers and, by extension, the brands that hire them.


The problem, as McCamby sees it, lies in publishers allowing PR and marketing agencies to post directly to their sites through their own content management systems. He thinks readers will question the origins and accuracy of every editorial piece in a given publication once they discover that said mag/website is in the sponsored content game. Those readers, he implies, wouldn’t find much value in sponsored content in the first place, and it can soil their opinions of their favorite magazines and websites.

How true is that fear?

There’s no doubt that The Atlantic got a good bit of flack for publishing a paid advertorial from the Church of Scientology, and we wonder how much value the church really earned from it. But Forbes has done quite well with its BrandVoice native ad venture, partly because readers aren’t as surprised by advertorials in business magazines as they would be if the same spots appeared in, say, The New Yorker. On the newspaper side, no one seems to be complaining about The Washington Post‘s entry into the sponsored content field.

McCamby sees a conundrum: sponsored content threatens the reporting racket (primarily because it pays better) but only succeeds when it’s well-written and informative, just like “legitimate” journalism. He thinks most brands will fail the native game because their stuff just won’t be good enough.

Even if he’s right, the native trend is strong enough to attract the attention of the FTC: the group will sponsor an upcoming workshop designed to help attendees understand it. Will this lead to greater legal regulations around the practice? Maybe—and this wouldn’t be a bad thing.

In a cosmically appropriate way, we hope the sponsored trend continues. It’s provided us with lots of blog posts.