Opening the print edition of the Oregonian recently, I was surprised to find a full page article about armored safes. Looking closer, I saw that this was in fact a paid advertisement — not a news article. There were tell-tale signs. After comparing other articles, I could see that font was different, the text was framed with a border, and in small print at the top of the page, I noticed the words “paid advertisement.” But the biggest tip-off should have been my surprise: why would the Oregonian publish this sort of fluff on page A4?
The company that created the armored safe advertisement is called Universal Media Syndicate (UMS). This innocuous-sounding name is not to be confused with Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes commentary and cartoons nationally. UMS has published these kinds of advertorials in papers all over the country, including the Oregonian, The Register-Guard and the Statesman Journal. Advertorials are advertisements in the form of editorial content like UMS’s Amish heater and crosses (PDF) made “with grains of sacred sand from Christ’s tomb.”
The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating advertorials on websites. Chances are you’ve seen the “1 Trick of a Tiny Belly” ad. The Washington Post reports in the past 18 months the ad has flashed tens of billions of times on computer screens all over the world and is also an alleged scam. The people who click on the Tiny Belly link are led to another advertising website, one disguised as a feature news article. For months, many media outlets, including Oregonlive.com, passively hosted links for these advertisements on their websites.
When it comes to advertising, what is a media outlet’s responsibility to its readers? Do advertisements disguised as editorial content in news media dilute the credibility of their news? What about the websites that passively host scams? How should media outlets balance their need for ad revenue with their obligation to readers?
Paul Farhi: Reporter for the Washington Post
Skip Nichols: Managing Editor of the East Oregonian Newspaper