Sponsored Content: How Much is Too Much?

The past few months have been a rocky one for sponsored online content or “advertorials.” Between the Atlantic‘s Scientology dust-up and increasing paid content on websites like Buzzfeed and various outlets within the Gawkwer network, publishers are pushing boundaries and blurring the line between editorial and advertisement.

It’s a sticky subject, for sure, and the centerpiece of a Social Media Week debate in Buzzfeed’s Flatiron District office between Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith and conservative blogger and The Dist Andrew Sullivan. To describe the debate as a blood bath is even a little bit of an understatement, as the two personalities clashed vehemently over the advertorial’s place online — and the effect it has on journalism at large. Here’s a quote from the debate moderator, the Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson, from his write-up of the event:

  Ben and Andrew fought fiercely and eloquently about the ethics of advertorials, making for a far more interesting discussion that the one I tucked into my coat so I could sip beer and enjoy fight night from the best seat in the house.

Thompson concedes in the piece that Sullivan and Smith sit diametrically opposed in philosophies of advertorials: Sullivan, an independent blogger, believes that advertorials can damage the trust of readers and turn away business (preferring a subscription model) and Smith, as the leader of one of the most ubiquitous websites right now, sees advertorials as a necessary part of funding and uniting it with a brand’s look and feel adds value. The main argument also comes down to a single point: it’s more about how the advertorial looks than what is on it.

Another quote:

Andrew probably spent 30 minutes lambasting the morals of native advertising, but he acknowledged that his concerns would be eliminated if BuzzFeed prominently printed the word ADVERTISEMENT next to the advertisement — and perhaps darkened the background color.

The fiery debate uncovers the discomfort the journalism world feels with advertising — blurring a line that has been so clearly delineated within the code of journalism ethics since the rise of the newspaper. More websites are embracing Buzzfeed’s tactic of incorporating advertorials into branding — pushing the sponsored language into the background and cleverly blending the articles among real editorial work. It’s a proven money-maker, a rarity in the online journalism, but it’s dubiousness can still make some uncomfortable.

Still, in the world of journalism, it’s all a shade of gray.

What do you think of advertorials and the Sullivan/Smith debate? Let us know in the comments.