By Dan Foley
Disclaimer: I am a content marketer who gets paid good money to do sponsored content. I wrote this article out of an existential struggle for the present and the future of journalism.
How Scared Should We Be When Corporations Run the News?
Chances are, you’ve come across branded content at some point in your life. When you saw it for the first time, maybe you scoffed and dismissed it. Maybe you appreciated it as a unique form of marketing, and read on. Maybe you just asked yourself, “What the hell is branded content?”
Whatever the case, you’re not alone.
Before becoming a content marketer, I didn’t know either. Now, I largely make my living writing branded content. This puts me in an interesting ethical bind, as there are many people in the industry who see sponsored content as the death of journalism (and the next step in total corporate takeover). I wrote this both for the sake of analysis and carthysis. But first, what the hell is branded content.
Branded content goes by many definitions. On a base level, it’s when companies pay publishers to sponsor their content. For example: Nintendo paying Buzzfeed to let them write an article that appears on their homepage. Or Skype sponsoring content on Gawker all about teaching cats how to Skype.
This is by no means a new thing. It’s been around since the early 2000’s when BMW put out their infamous The Hire DVDs. Starring Clive Owen, these short films all had their own individual storylines, but the point was simple: show off BMWs in as non-commercially a way as possible.
We see it now, most commonly, as “sponsored content” – specially-labeled articles featured on top websites written by other companies. But why? Let’s count the reasons:
- No one watches TV anymore Television viewing is down 20% from last year with Millennials. With the proliferation of Netflix, DVR, and illegal downloads, advertisers are failing to reach their prime, tech-savvy demographic.
- Free Ad-blockers Pushing internet ads becomes a lot harder when people can’t see them thanks to ad-blockers.
- So, so many ads Even though the public is doing their best to dodge ads, we’re exposed to more than ever these days. Some estimates have us seeing as many as 5,000 ads per day.
- More experienced consumers People are jaded towards advertising. They don’t like being sold to anymore. They like discovering products for themselves.
Advertising had to find a way to differentiate themselves and get noticed. Branded content has filled that void, delivering value while still promoting the company.
So now, we have fascinating documentaries about submarines…sponsored by GE. Or hilarious how-to guides for getting a date for prom…by AXE. None of that is too surprising.
It gets interesting when you think of the The New York Times. The accredited, privately-owned newspaper has its own division called T Brand Studio, specifically for sponsored content. This ranges everywhere from Adobe’s “Carry the Digital Torch” to Shell’s “Cities Energize” content.
No, the latter was not a joke. Shell the oil company.
With the decline of funding for traditional newspapers (and proper journalism in general), this is an essential part of The New York Times being able to stay afloat. At the same time, they use these publishing dollars to budget experimental content like award-winning VR programming and podcasts.
While the preservation of pure journalism is of the utmost importance, this begs the question: what is sponsored content doing next to journalistic content? Does anyone else smell a conflict of journalistic integrity? Or is this ultimately for the greater good?
A question of journalistic integrity and money
Does branded content violate journalistic integrity? The answer isn’t as simple as you might think.
It’s true, the idea of reading articles (or even full-blown news stories) written by the corporation that fuels our automobiles and war planes may sound absurd. That absurdity begins to diminish when you consider that 90% of American media, including newspapers and news networks, is owned by 6 different conglomerates. The truth is, journalistic integrity is already a complicated beast.
In fact, a lot of people trust branded content. A recent Vibrant study shows that consumers trust content from publication only slightly more than they do from brands (35% versus 33%). That means either our publications are doing something wrong, or our brands are doing something right.
Maybe people trust branded content because the spin is clear and present, unlike that news media giants. We know what AirBnB’s agenda is (making money off of a crowd-sourced hotel platform), but beyond pushing a Republican agenda (through tactics like story selection), what is Fox News’ real intent?
It doesn’t hurt that people trust branded content. They walk away with a piece of information that can better their lives or a story that can inspire them. Writers for branded content are highly paid for a reason: they’re good at delivering a highly-readable story.
As “true” journalism continues to fade away, companies seem to have more money than ever before. And they’re beginning to invest in content. It makes sense, big corporations spend millions annually to have their logo plastered on a soccer jersey; $1,000 for a quality article online is chump change for them.
So, if the trends continue, will we slowly see branded content replacing journalism and news content? And if so, what will that look like?
The future of branded content as news and political ideologies
It’s not hard to imagine businesses beginning to build political platforms via their branded content and passing it off as news.
Such a change would also inspire changes in political ideologies as we know them. America would transform into something of a corporate democracy, where your vote and your dollar are intertwined. That means that businesses would start developing dramatic political ideologies through their media campaigns. Think of the potential platforms:
Big business versus small business
Organic versus big farm
Outsourced versus domestic
This would pervade our daily lives. Imagine working for a company and having to abide by their political ideology out of a fear of being fired. Imagine how that could damage trust within circles of friends, families, and the world in general.
Political fractions could rise out of pre-existing issues in a much more profound way. This could result in more parties, or a more diverse realm of ideas crafted around these corporate political issues.
This is where it could get dangerous. To give an example: what’s to stop Wal*Mart from putting out content lambasting Vietnam because the Vietnamese government won’t give them the permits to build a factory there? It could result in economic sanctions for Vietnam, over a corporate financial issue. Considering they’ve spent nearly $8 million in the past annually in lobbying, this isn’t a far stretch.
Although, maybe it wouldn’t be so dystopian. Branded content could usher in a new era of corporate integrity.
The powerful new righteous smear campaign
If the importance of “likes” and “sharability” is any indication of things to come, businesses could use their news platforms as a platform for exciting, true news stories against their competitors.
While this may sound negative at first, imagine smear branded content campaigns, by companies with a moral compass.
That is to say: what if companies could launch smear news campaigns against their competitors, bringing to light their darkest corporate deeds?
- Imagine Pepsi launching a viral smear campaign through their news media, skewering Coca Cola for privatizing Indian water supplies for their product, showing the countless Indian families left deprived of clean drinking water.
- Picture Pete’s Tea and Coffee doing an insider scoop on Starbuck’s anti-fair trade practices with the indigenous people who grow their coffee.
- Think of Tom’s Shoes doing an expose on Nike’s (former) sweatshops overseas in Southeast Asia. Or Costco showing Wal-mart’s factories in the same area.. Or any of the above.
This could be the golden age for truth, where corporations are forced into human decency out of fear of being exposed and losing their political and financial footing.
A new standard of truth and globalization
At the end of the day, the most important thing in journalism is truth. So what would that mean for them and for us? How can we know we’re getting the truth?
The optimist will say that the value of attaching your brand to the news will mean that fact-checking will reign supreme. No branded content will want to be deemed as false.
The pessimist will say that big business will always have a step up financially, and will find new ways to manipulate and control the truth.
While it will likely be a combination of the two, it will get very interesting when it plays out on the international level. Because of the various governments, cultures, ideologies, and standards of decency around the globe, catering to the world with your brand would be a very complicated thing.
Think about it: could Apple News in China post the same news as Apple News USA?
Here are three ways corporate branded news could play out:
- Ideally, this globalized corporate news could become a catalyst for a universal first amendment right. This could ensure free access and integrity in news across various channels, uniting the world by the prospect of the truth. We’re already seeing fact-checkers like WikiLeaks doing due diligence around the world.
- Or, it could develop deeper fracture lines between nations. Imagine different news propagated on the micro-level, to cater to and influence various subgroups and populations with the desire to control and manipulate. We already see fragments of this with Time Magazine and their different covers for different countries.
- Of course, there’s always the third, throw-away option (and the most likely): news with no depth, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Fluff stories about a squirrel water skiing. Things anyone and everyone can get behind. Think about how many people know the music video Oppa Gangnam Style versus how few know people know where Aleppo is.
Who’s to say?
An uncertain future
Right now all of this is, of course, speculation. But, like a good Sci-Fi novel about AI or cloning, it’s anticipatory speculation. Understanding the possibilities of the future will allow us to plan for it today, and understand what we’re up against.
Or what we have to look forward to.
This author thinks that, like with most things in life, we’ll get a good mix of both. Just like always, corporations will try to over assert their authority. And, just like always, the public will push back. Small businesses will be torn in their allegiance.
At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is that we ensure that we keep a level of objectivity and integrity in sponsored content. If branded journalism is indeed the future, let’s make sure it’s at least an honest one.
What do you think? Is sponsored content going to pose an existential threat to the integrity of humanity? Will it be a corporate tool of oppression? Or could it open a new future of truth and objectivity?
Dan Foley is the CEO of Tailored Ink, a boutique copywriting agency. He’s been featured in publications ranging from Entrepreneur to Thrillist, and is currently working on a sci-fi novel entitled “Two Worlds.”