The Advertorial as Information Pollution

By Ellerbach, John | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Advertorial as Information Pollution


Ellerbach, John, Journal of Information Ethics


Traditionally, those who disapprove of advertising have fallen into three broad categories. Some take exception to all forms of marketing communication-especially advertising-as intrusive, deceptive, and promulgating the vice of conspicuous consumption. Others do not voice a pervasive objection to all advertising, but do insist that certain products and services should never be advertised-personal hygiene products, "noble" professional endeavors such as physicians' services, and higher education among them. A third group reasons that advertising is a legitimate marketing strategy per se and that all legal products and services should be eligible to be advertised, but the big problem resides, then, not with whether or what to advertise, but how. This faction believes advertising gets its bad reputation from its "executions," or the way advertising people position a product in the public mind through the messages they create. In other words, ads that are low-key, honest and tastefully done are permissible to this category of advertising critics. In their eyes, ads that brazenly attack the harsher sensibilities of their target audiences should be banned. Such ads try too hard to get attention, mislead, leave out essential information, and/or use suggestive double-entendre or contrived motivational appeals. The advertorial, an advertisement often thinly disguised as legitimate news matter, tends to be problematic from all three perspectives. Editors say publications that adopt advertorials are contributing to information pollution and living a journalistic lie (Saltz). As the advertorial becomes a preferred marketing tool for the new millennium and begins to creep into on-line search engines, librarians, in their advising role as interpreters and legitimizers of information, will need to address the ethical ramifications of the paid-for advocacy that appears to be objective journalism.

An Unholy Alliance

"The name (advertorial) itself should have been a clue we were heading for trouble," says Janesville (Wis.) Gazette editor Scott Angus. "It's a godawful, made-up word, and good journalists cringe at the thought of bastardizing the language for a trend. Moreover, the word brings advertising and editorial (matter) together in an unholy alliance that should have made the ink in our veins boil" (Angus 46).

Newspaper Research Journal calls the advertorial "one of the fastest growing media trends in the advertising industry over the past decade" (i2). Still, the advertorial is not a new tactic; readers are just seeing more of them these days. The main reason why this advertising approach is becoming so popular is because it capitalizes on a tried-and-true public-relations maxim: The closer the message gets to being construed as objective journalism, the more credibility the message will have.

Wilkinson and Hausknecht categorize this crafty mix of promotion and news and ask that "further research should evaluate the public's ability to act as jurors in classifying disputed communications into quadrants of a communication taxonomy" (ii). The dispute involves the crossing of the longstanding line of demarcation that separates the advertising sales force from the editors and reporters. The traditional ideal is that no advertiser should dictate or influence news content. Indeed, advertising does pay the bills, but advertisers only rent space and time to run their messages; their economic clout does not mean they should influence the editorial or programming content in a medium. With today's media, particularly newspapers, striving to survive in an information-and-entertainment-saturated market, the temptation is strong to cross the line in favor of the paying customer: the advertiser. In fact, at some newspapers, reporters have been asked to use their expertise to write bylined pseudonews stories for special promotional sections not clearly construed by the readership as advertising. For example, a reporter might be asked to interview local computer retailers for a flattering feature to be run in a "Technology and Our Community" advertising section. …

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