Is “Advertorial” a Four-Letter Word? Part 1

I support content as an online advertising vehicle. The large majority of people go online to research and read; their attention is focused primarily on words, not pictures. Google, Yahoo, and contextual ad networks serve text-based search ads within relevant content. They’ve proven successful, so why not expand text ad opportunities?

Advertorials, paid editorial content provided by an advertiser, define this expanded text ad buy. Advertorials have existed for years in print, but online advertorial opportunities seem rare and elusive. Is this fact or simply perception? If advertorial opportunities are scarce, why is it so? Is paid editorial evil?

In 2002, the online advertorial made headlines when Sony disclosed plans to launch a $10 million online advertorial campaign. The concept revolved around first-person informational accounts, written by real consumers (according to Sony), with related links to Sony products near or at the bottom of the copy. Sounds relatively harmless, right?

The campaign launched a debate about clear distinction between online editorial and advertising, as well as reader perception as to who produces and controls content. Many popular sites, including iVillage,, TIME Online Edition, Yahoo, and National Geographic Online, ran the campaign. Other sites, such as and CBS MarketWatch, turned it down, saying the articles looked too much like editorial.

Fast-forward three years. One wonders what doesn’t look or behave like editorial content. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, search ads are still unrecognized as paid content by 62 percent of users. Many bloggers write for the sheer purpose of generating Google AdSense revenue, and bogus content is created to increase search engine rankings. Some publishers request fees to print press releases. Product placement is so rampant in broadcast media, few TV programs are without some form of subtle or blatant (“The Apprentice,” anyone?) product marketing.

According to FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, things have gotten so bad “the increasing commercialization of American media” is making it more difficult for consumers to discern real, unbiased news from commercial agendas. If the situation is so severe, you’d think the concept of a site offering advertorials would be relatively trite.

Following print publishers’ lead, online advertorials can adhere to industry standard best practices, which have been refined since 2002. The American Society of Magazine Editors offers “Best Practices for Digital Media.” The Online Publishers Association offers guidelines in its member publishing criteria. Though the guidelines may differ, clear labeling or identification of the advertorial content is a consistent key element.

Online advertorial remains a hot potato. Few publishers will touch it. If they do, it’s often not something found in their media kits. Most won’t call it “advertorial.” You’re more likely to find advertorial opportunities under names such as “Special Advertising Section,” “Content Module,” or “Integrated Content.” Some publishers won’t go there. That’s the official line at AOL and, for example.

Perhaps that’s because of the complexity in buying and placing advertorials. By its very nature, the advertorial isn’t conducive to ad serving; it’s typically a whole page of content, not a page component. Publishers succeeding at advertorial consider it more about integrated content, combining it with other page elements to give users a more complete, “wrapped” experience.

This, too, may contribute to the seeming scarcity of advertorial opportunities. Advertorials aren’t a cut-and-dry buy with standard specifications anyone with a budget can purchase. They require comprehension and creativity from the media buyer and advertiser alike. The publisher must be willing to work with the advertiser to produce something that benefits site visitors. As one publisher put it, “We don’t get a lot of calls for advertorial because most media buyers are not thinking outside the box of image-based buys.”

Are online media buyers really to blame for the lack of advertorial opportunities? In part two, perspectives from both publishers and buyers. Send me yours!

Read part two of “Is ‘Advertorial’ a Four-Letter Word.

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