The secrets of ‘Black Ops’ advertising. Who is paying for our news?

“I think the public would resent knowing they are being tricked. So best not to always tell them.”

Are the ‘glory days’ of advertising back? (Mad Men, Lionsgate)

It’s a “legitimate con”, according to one former executive at ESI Media, the Russian-owned company that controls London’s Evening Standard and the online Independent. A writer working for Spark, the Telegraph’s branded content division, calls it “creative deception”. For the American communications academic, Mara Einstein, it’s simply “black ops advertising”. But whatever name you give to the growing practice of blurring the separation between impartial editorial and paid-for advertising, readers of UK newspapers and their linked online sites are increasingly unable to notice when the news ends and the hidden sales pitch begins.

With close to £1 billion of revenue estimated to have disappeared from the UK print news industry over the last seven years, the combination of shrinking circulation and declining traditional ad revenue has boosted the commercial importance of paid-for content – which is increasingly covertly assimilated into news and features pages.

“It’s a given that straight ads no longer work, so we bend and blur.”

According to one leading agency sales executive who spoke to openDemocracy: “It’s a given that straight ads no longer work, so we bend and blur. As the advertising industry guru, David Ogilvy, said ‘There’s no need for advertisements to look like advertisements’. Now they don’t. But unlike Ogilvy, I think the public would resent knowing they are being tricked. So best not to always tell them.”

Darkest Hour, brought to you by…

The Telegraph’s “creative commercial department”, Sparks, currently has a lucrative content deal with Focus Features and Working Title, the distribution and production companies responsible for the multiple US Academy Award- and Bafta-nominated film, Darkest Hour. The Churchill epic is flagged up by Sparks as a “live content marketing example” along with other high-paying clients that include British Airways; Disney and Pixar; the Norway tourist office in London; and the luxury jewellers, Jessica McCormick.

Live campaigns and examples of “the latest branded content pieces” are stated as including “articles, videos, interactive games, maps and more”. The words “brought to you by” or “in association with” appear in the Telegraph’s paid-for content. The company maintains there is now a “thick Chinese wall” between paid-for content and impartial editorial.

Image: Darkest Hour, Focus Pictures/Jack English

However articles on Churchill, clearly connected with Darkest Hour, have been published which the Telegraph maintains are simply not part of the commercial deal with the film company. They include those headlined: “Fact Checking” the Darkest Hour, an interview with Gary Oldman on “playing Churchill”, a Churchill speech in cinemas receiving a standing ovation, a piece on the film’s make-up skills, and an examination of a Churchill memo. These pieces, including the main film review, are given a small strap head that says “premium”.

If there is a distinction between paid-for features, and independent evaluation of the film’s merits, it is not clear to Telegraph readers which is which. openDemocracy has tasked the Telegraph to comment on whether its journalists would feel free to openly criticise a company (like the producers and distributers of Darkest Hour) that was paying tens of thousands for positive coverage.

Dr Michelle Amazeen, a professor in the department of mass communication, advertising and public relations at Boston University, says “It’s becoming harder to distinguish whether the content you are reading is news or something else… like advertising.” A recent piece of her research showed that unless articles were specifically branded, few people were now able to recognise paid-for advertising.

“A fraud on readers”

The Telegraph’s record on telling readers what they need to know is chequered. Writing for openDemocracy in 2015, the paper’s former chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, resigned and called the Telegraph’s coverage of HSBC “a fraud on its readers”. He said the traditional distinction between the editorial and advertising departments had “collapsed” and claimed this was a pattern discernible in other parts of the paper’s news coverage.

Oborne said the paper had discouraged stories that were critical of HSBC, and that one former Telegraph executive had told him the bank was “an advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend.” The story made global headlines, and the Telegraph committed to stricter guidelines separating advertising from editorial in the wake of the scandal.

Image: C4, advertising their Oborne content

openDemocracy re-contacted current and former journalists at the Telegraph, and others with knowledge of the group’s commercial practices. All were reluctant to speak about any aspect of the company. However there was near unanimity that Oborne had not over-stated the problem. One journalist told openDemocracy: “If anything the situation from 2015 has deteriorated. Advertorial, however disguised, is now more important to the company than it ever was. But I doubt we are alone in this.”

“Content creators embedded in editorial departments”

ESI Media, the parent company of the online Independent and the London Live TV channel, now barely disguises to potential commercial clients any division between editorial and advertising. One former commercial executive in the company told openDemocracy “The old line between church and state often gave a newspaper its identity and reputation. That’s long gone.”

ESI’s dedicated “commercial content creation team”, called Story Studio, boasts to clients that their “content creators are embedded within editorial departments”. Other execs say there is really no dedicated “creation team” and that the majority of paid content is written by either staff journalists or freelancers.

“The holy grail for advertisers is now controlled content that is barely distinguishable from editorial text.”

An ESI insider, who spoke to openDemocracy on a strictly confidential basis, said: “The holy grail for advertisers is now controlled content that is barely distinguishable from editorial text. They want it written by in-house journalists, not by sycophantic copywriters. With the old power of traditional advertising seriously eroded, native advertising – essentially anything with the commercial source of the message well hidden and incorporated into supposedly impartial news and features – is what the big clients want.”

 When Story Studio started – before ESI shuttered the print edition of The Independent – newly-appointed commercial managers attempted to get senior writers at the Independent to deliver paid-for articles. One client, an international education company, wanted an eight-page supplement to be entirely written by a senior specialist writer. The request was refused on the grounds that an editor or senior writer’s reputation would be affected if they were associated with a product that was evidently paid for. News editors, with limited staff resources, were forced into fending off further requests for other correspondents to deliver tailored commercial articles.

openDemocracy spoke to current and former young journalists working for Independent Digital News and Media, which recently received new investment from a Saudi sultan.

One said that to refuse or even question an order that had “come from advertising” could result in a threat to end their employment contract. Sources from the “crèche” (as a group of young journalists at the Kensington office call themselves) said that because they were beginning their careers, they “had little option but to do what we are told. And it is particularly bad for lifestyle and fashion writers.” Another writer said: “I was directed to interview a leading figure from academia and was told to leave out anything negative. The reason? There was a connected advertising campaign.”

Everything for sale – at the right price

At the Evening Standard, currently edited by the former Tory chancellor, George Osborne, ESI commercial representatives have told some potential clients that many parts of the paper are “for sale” for the right price. A deal with Virgin Media saw the broadband company “take over” the prestigious Londoner’s Diary every Friday. Other paid-for Virgin content was described as “easily packaged into native stories” for the i100 news website. Although the content was marked as “in association with Virgin”, the layout design was generally indistinguishable from neighbouring editorial.

Virgin were also the launch partners of the Standard’s “staying in” channel. The content of the channel focused on “must-see streamable” material and trending videos. Distributed free to London commuters at tube and rail stations, the Virgin deal was lauded for being able to “target readers on their way home.” A former commercial administrator at ESI, now working for another national media title, told openDemocracy:

“The only game in town is survival. Readers are no longer won with stand-out editorial, instead we ‘target’ readers for their passive and monetised role as consumers of barely-disguised advertising. Once they rumble their current role, we will urgently need to invent a new method of persuasion, or pack up the whole fucking print news industry and go home.”

Is it a clear advert? Who knows?

At ESI, some commercial relationships are made very clear, for example when the furniture manufacture DFS “sponsored” the Standard’s Rio Olympics 2016 coverage. DFS was given a “daily front page call to action” urging Standard readers to get behind Team GB. The company sponsored the paper’s preview supplement and carried sponsored daily coverage on the sports pages. For the two Olympic weeks, 350 Evening Standard vendors around London wore t-shirts promoting the DFS and Team GB association.

Less clear for Standard readers, however, is the current involvement of Betfair, the sports betting company, on the sports pages. The Betfair logo currently appears at the top of major sports stories on the back pages. One ad executive explained to openDemocracy: “The association of sport with betting is now so ingrained that Betfair know if outcome odds are discussed in a sports article and their logo is in view, then it’s likely that a link will be mentally made. That’s all Betfair want. Is it a clear advert? Who knows, because nothing is a clear advert anymore.”

Mara Einstein, professor of media studies at City University New York, says the level of “covert selling” has so blurred the lines between editorial and marketing, that it has become a sophisticated, “black ops” industry. She has written: “Instead of telling us to buy, buy, buy, we are now told to “engage” and share, share, share – it is the ultimate subtle sell, and it is impossible to tell the real news from paid endorsements.”

Separation of church and state

Last year Enders Analysis predicted that native advertising would grow by over 150 percent over the next three years. The New York Times, wary of the both the financial attractions and the ethical pitfalls, began their own T Brand Studio – which organises branded content – by promising to keep the church and state line “strong and clear”. As one of the NY Times’ T-Brand executives in London noted: “The second you start blurring the line you get in a hell of a lot of trouble and lose a hell of lot of credibility.”

Guardian Labs (GL), which runs content funding for Guardian News and Media, have a similar promise to hold an ethical line and make clear how content has been commissioned and produced, and who has funded it. GL say one of three labels will appear on its paid-for content: “supported by”, “Paid content/paid for by” or “advertiser content/from our advertisers”.

However, for a former Guardian commissioning editor who spoke to openDemocracy, “supported by” is a “grey area for many writers”. The Guardian maintain that “supported by” is still “editorially independent content” because the editor-in-chief has the final say over whether a funding deal is accepted, and that the commissioning editor is not obliged to accept ideas from the funder. GNM say they do not show copy to funders for approval.

“Supported by” is also used to mark content that has been produced from funding from the larger global foundation. Currently GNM take money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (for their Global Development site), from the Rockefeller Foundation (for the Cities Project), and from the Skoll Foundation (for climate and environment reporting).

“This is a sensitive area for many contributors and staff writers,” one former section head told openDemocracy, “and it can lead to self-censorship because the question of critical funding for the paper is always hovering in the background. So you ask – ‘Do I really want to piss off a major funder?’”

“A multi-layered approach to storytelling’

GL recently produced a five months long paid-for campaign with Airbnb, the home rental website. The focus of the partnership was to show how using Airbnb can lead to a “deeper holiday experience.” Imogen Fox, executive editor at GL, said the Airbnb campaign and connected podcasts were a “fantastic example of how Guardian Labs can bring in world-class talent and build a multi-layered approach to storytelling for brands.” GL said all the Airbnb content was “labelled in line with the Guardian’s commercial guidelines.”

Other parts of the Airbnb deal with GL was a series of “immersive features” that included a Q&A about Airbnb, and personal accounts from “real families” who had used the rental site for their “perfect Airbnb family holiday.”

Image: Airbnb

GL claimed the campaign resulted in 33 percent of Guardian readers having an “improved opinion” of the company, and that Guardian readers were “twice as likely to go out of their way to recommend Airbnb.”

However during late 2017, months after the official deal with Airbnb concluded, the Guardian continued to write positive stories about the company. An article in November last year praised Airbnb for “expanding its stays for disabled travellers.” In December there was a positive piece reporting a 600 per cent rise in bookings for 2018 for “traditional family-run hostelries – ryokans – in Japan”. A month after the Airbnb deal wrapped there was a feature about a couple headlined: “Experience – I fell in love through Airbnb.” In October there was a piece that praised an Airbnb loan scheme that would help the owners of homes offered for rent to pay for improvements. The scheme would “help Airbnb cement its position as an alternative to traditional hotels.”

None of these positive articles about Airbnb were marked as sponsored or paid-for content, and were presented by the Guardian as impartial editorials.

Inside the same late 2017 timeframe, there were some qualified negative comments in the Guardian about Airbnb. In November there was a published letter in the “Consumer Champions” part of Money Guardian that criticised a host renter for cancelling a booking at the last minute. Airbnb were quoted as saying cancellations were rare, and there was a penalty system to discourage hosts from cancelling.

In October another letter, also in Consumer Champions, criticised the flaw of double-booking and disappointment over the alternative provided which was “flea infested.” Airbnb said the client had failed to post a review within the required 14-day period, but admitted that the Competition and Market Authority had stepped in and forced Airbnb to rectify a flaw in their review system which had meant the worst listings escaping bad reviews.

But for one City analyst involved in travel industry investment, GNM’s commercial partnership with Airbnb, however time-limited, opens up a potential conflict of interest. She said: “When deals like this end, does normal service resume? Because no serious business would work like that. Airbnb and other companies become valued clients to Guardian Labs. So Guardian readers, if they’ve noticed at all, must place their trust in the paper’s editors and managers to restore the divide between editorial and paid-for messages, after that line has been eroded for entirely commercial reasons.”

A Guardian spokesperson has told openDemocracy: “It is manifestly untrue that any advertising or branded content affects our editorial procedures, decisions or position. The Guardian’s journalism is always entirely independent and any advertising or branded content is very clearly labelled. We remain free to, and often do, challenge the activities of companies and organisations that are either our advertisers or sponsors.”

BBC Energy news – with “assistance” from Exxon

“Supported funding”, which is claimed not to interfere with editorial independence, also affects Britain’s largest news organisation: the BBC.

Reports were given to openDemocracy from leading environment campaign groups which claimed the commercial branch of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, had accepted financial assistance from the US energy company, Exxon, to aid its coverage in the United States of story strands linked to the environment. Under BBC Worldwide rules, advertising is allowed.

The deal was not a secret, with the Exxon logo and acknowledged assistance appearing in web pages. The BBC’s relationship with Exxon is alleged to have helped cash-strapped commissioning editors deliver strong content that would otherwise have been too expensive to undertake. No involvement or editorial interference from Exxon is said to have taken place.

Image: Exxon Baton Rouge refinery, WikiCommons

However, when the BBC UK re-ran some of the US-based pieces on the environment which had acknowledged Exxon’s help, the logo of the energy company did not appear on the UK site. Advertising on the BBC in the UK is prohibited by the BBC’s charter.

Did UK readers of the BBC not have the right to make their own judgement on sponsorship or “help” from Exxon? openDemocracy contacted the BBC asking for details of its arrangement with Exxon, and why the logo had not appeared on certain stories published in the UK when the company’s assistance had been made clear to US audiences.

The BBC refused to divulge or discuss the Exxon link or any commercial arrangement with BBC Worldwide. It said information requests to parts of the BBC, including its Worldwide division, were not subject to Freedom of Information laws. The corporation stated that “All advertising must comply with the BBC’s advertising and sponsorship guidelines.” And added: “The BBC’s reputation for providing impartial and independent news will always take precedent over wider commercial goals.”

Dr Michelle Amazeen at Boston University has warned that the current attitude of a struggling mainstream news industry towards native and disguised advertising is dangerously short term. While there may be valued incremental revenue arriving at a critical time when publishers “are bleeding ad dollars”, she says, there will be a cost down the road if readers are alienated. In the words of one of her research participants: “Everything is a goddamn ad now”. If that becomes the accepted norm, the industry – and in particular its ability to hold the powerful to account – will face a far graver threat.

News organisations, Amazeen says, need to be transparent about who is funding them. Integrity matters, not least because “journalism demands transparency” from everyone else.

James Cusick was, until recently, the political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. 

Crina Boros is an investigative journalist with a data-driven approach to reporting. She trains for CIJ and has freelanced for BBC, Greenpeace, Investigate Europe and ICIJ.

This article is part of openMedia, a project funded by the Adessium and Democracy and Media foundations to investigate and expose commercial interference in editorial decisions across Europe’s media. If you are a journalist who recognises any of the issues described here, please fill out our confidential survey below, anonymously if you wish. Thank you.




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