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The debate on native advertising rages on.

Earlier this month the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) again reminded publishers that dressing up ads as journalism calls for clear labeling on the product. Mary Engle, associate director of advertising practices for the FTC, said at the Clean Ads I/O conference, “For us, the concern is whether consumers recognize what they’re seeing is advertising or not.”

In short, don’t try to fool the reader.

But while the FTC and industry watchers try to define when native advertising crosses the line — “I know it when I see it” doesn’t quite work here — the old-school print advertorial is making a comeback. I don’t have the hard numbers, but I’m coming across more of these print advertorials, some of which masquerade as newspaper supplements. Consider these supplements as advertorials on steroids, typically consisting of four to 16 pages stuffed with what appears to be editorial content and advertising. Weirdly enough, the running of actual ads in the advertorial supplement adds to the illusion that it is not advertising.

If you’re thinking only second-tier media would walk this slippery slope, think again.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an eight-page supplement (opening photo shows the cover) from Russia called “Russia Beyond the Headlines.” It does say “Advertising Section” at the top and it does carry the disclaimer, “This supplement is produced and published by the Rossiyska Gazeta (Russia) and did not involve the news or editorial departments of The Wall Street Journal.”  Still, with a “look and feel” mimicking a newspaper and being horse-shoe close to the Journal’s design (check out swath of the paper below), I’m sure a large percent of readers assumed they were reading the Journal.

Russian-Economy-Spread-b

 

Once you dig into the content, the articles reflect a journalistic bent that’s rarely seen in native advertising. This sophistication comes in the form of using “negatives” as a technique to bring credibility to the positives. For example, the Page 1 headline, “Russia’s Economy: Signs of Life” includes the lead “Analysts say they see fresh hope for Russia’s battered economy as better-than-expected GDP data and firmer oil prices lift the country’s prospects.”

You don’t find unflattering phrases like “signs of life” and “battered economy” in advertising, which again plays to the illusion.

Furthermore, the mix of articles includes trend pieces, like a full-page spread on “The Future of BRICS” and human-interest features like “Honey,  I printed a thyroid gland.”

And the visual storytelling stays industrial grade with assets ranging from an infographic …

Combined Economics BRICS - Infographic

to an illustration with a smidgen of levity …

UFA Summit - BRICS

Putting politics to the side, it’s an impressive piece of propaganda from Team Russia’s marketing machine. After punting its nine-year PR relationship with Ketchum, Russia probably figured it needed other ways to insert its voice into the overall Russia narrative.

What interests me here is the second example of The Wall Street Journal choosing to blur the line between journalism and advertising for money. No doubt, the Journal snagged a nice piece of change from the Russian government for the supplement. Taking into account the Journal’s off-the-rack rate of $250K for a full page ad, Russia shelled out in the neighborhood of $2.5M for the supplement. Maybe the Journal strategized that with the FTC’s resources diverted to native advertising, it would escape scrutiny.

If so, the Journal was right. While the media crushed Ketchum for taking on Russia as a PR client, the Journal’s transaction with Russia was a non-event.

The native advertising promise calls for delivering branded journalism in its natural habitat. One could make an argument that the Russia supplement achieves this “natural” assimilation better than most native advertising, albeit, in print form.

Back to the litmus test —

Did The Wall Street Journal try to fool the reader with the Russia supplement?

I think the answer is yes.

Does the FTC or The Wall Street Journal’s own ethics/standards team care?

I don’t know, but the macro issue of where journalism ends and advertising begins will be playing out for some time and not just on the digital side.

 


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