The Fine Print

By: Allan Wolper

The Fine Print

I have 20-20 vision. I can read normal-sized signs across a wide city street. But I have to squint hard even with my reading glasses on when I’m confronted by tiny italics at the foot of full-page newspaper ads.  

Those are the ads that offer incredible deals in 72-point type for cars, clothes, and cellphones, then take them backwith pint-sized disclaimers. Advertisements, which H.G. Wells, the late science fiction writer, once called, “legal lying,” are mostly identifiable. They have buyer-beware clues all over them.  

That’s not the case with advertorials, which MerriamWebster.com defines as “an advertisement that imitates editorial format.” The problem is that those imitation pieces too often look like the real thing.  

The advertorials have newsy headlines, even bylines, and they read like regular news stories. They are generally well-written, persuasive, and include quotes from real people, just like the news pieces in the paper.  

Editors I have spoken to who are concerned about the pollution of their news product say that advertorials are the work of the advertising or business departments, or people they hire. Readers don’t often know that, because the papers do such a nice job of hiding their advertorial origins.  

The reasons are obvious: The bottom-liners in the newsrooms have seen their profits plummet and are looking for new ways to support their publications. One way has been to fire or buy out many of the reporters in those newsrooms. The other way is to increase the number of advertorials on their news pages, hoping no one will notice.  

Well, someone did.  

Robert and Donna Trussell, a husband and wife editorial cartoon team, recently published a piece showing two newsmen wondering why there wasn’t any Pulitzer Prize category for advertorials.  

The cartoons, a series on media issues they recently started drawing for The Poynter Institute of Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., has yet to produce any known nominations, facetious or otherwise.  

The Trussells had been drawing cartoons for Politics Daily until it was closed down by Arianna Huffington, CEO of Huffington Post, when her company was aquired by AOL.  

“We weren’t referring to any particular paper,” Robert Trussell told me with a laugh. 

Trussell, an arts and entertainment critic for The Kansas City Star for 30 years, is quick to point out that the Star has strict ethical rules about mixing advertising and advertorials.  

However, he has to endure the ethical pain of watching theater groups and movie studios buy ads in the Star that highlight the nice things he said about their productions — ignoring any of the negative comments he might have made. A different kind of advertorial. “There is nothing I can do about that,” he said.  

There is something that newspaper publishers can do. They can slow down their increasing reliance on advertorials. Otherwise they may pay for it. The Los Angeles Times is still trying to live down the day last summer when it allowed an advertiser to publish a four-page advertorial that looked and read like the front page of its newspaper.  

The Times pointed out that the front page of the editorial included the word “advertisement.” Critics noted, however, that it took a microscope to read it.

Newspaper advertising executives know the damage an advertorial can cause. Tim Dubus, director of creative services for The Denver Post, recently lived through an advertorial nightmare that he vows will never happen again.  

“We had sold out our two Friday real estate sections, and one of the advertorials leaked onto a third page,” he said. “We have a policy of making sure that the fonts on the news stories are different from the types in the ads. But this one slipped through.”  

John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, cited a recent poll by Frank Magid Associates of Minneapolis, which said that “more than all other media, adults continue to turn to newspapers to inform shopping decisions that lead to purchases.”  

That telephone poll of 2,502 people in early April doesn’t mean anything if newspapers continue to trick readers with advertorials that read like serious journalism stories. There is evidence that news sources can be snookered by the process.   

John K. Van de Kamp, former attorney general of California, hired as an ethical consultant by the city of Vernon, was asked if he would talk to a reporter for a straight news story. Turns out the reporter worked for the city. The next day he opened the Pasadena Star-News and saw that the city had used the interview as part of a paid advertorial. He told the Los Angeles Times the city had misled him.  

Newspaper readers, like everyone else, are intense Internet scanners. They want to be given the truth about what they are being told and what they are being sold. It’s a given that once a newspaper loses the trust of its readers, it rarely gets it back.

As I scanned various websites searching for material on newspaper advertising ethics, I found a page called Eye on Ethics, which advises journalists in Asia. It included The Japanese Newspaper Advertising Code of Ethics, which should also be adhered to in this part of the publishing world.  

“Newspaper advertising must tell the truth,” the code reads. “Newspaper advertising must not damage the dignity of the newspaper pages.”  

Newspaper readers are used to the misleading ads they see on television and listen to on the radio. They suspect those mediums sell their souls to the highest bidder. See the cars screeching around the corner on two wheels, followed by speeding small print warning viewers not to try it unless they’re professional drivers.  

Who can stop smiling when a white-coated actor stares into the camera and assures you that buying a drug will cure this or that disease, while a tiny disclaimer rushes across the bottom of the screen warning viewers against near death from the side effects? Or the news stations where anchors read commercials with the same beat and voice they use to deliver the latest United States Supreme Court decision?  

Newspaper owners like to present themselves as owners of the public trust. They are right. They shouldn’t abuse that trust by filling up their news product by selling advertorials as news.  

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of Conversations with Allan Wolper, at WBGO.org, a National Public Radio affiliate in Newark, N.J. His E&P columns have won numerous media criticism awards.

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