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How Russia Fools Readers ...

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In this era of fake news sites and outlandish assertions touched by social media suddenly morphing into perceived truths, Russia also depends on the advertorial as a “weapon” of choice to tell its story.

With ex-FBI Director James Comey’s recent testimony reigniting the Russia maelstrom, it’s easy to forget that Russia’s approach to disrupting the world order is more than a digital play consisting of hackers in a back room. There’s an umbrella effort to cultivate the Russia Inc. brand in a way that says, “Hey, we’re just like everyone else trying to advance an economy and support hard-working people to put a bowl of cabbage soup on the table.” After all, if you buy into this proposition, it’s less likely that you’ll believe the same country would hijack a presidential election.

That’s why I thought it worth dusting off an advertorial from a couple years ago that illustrates how Russia leverages paid content.

Before going further, I’d like to point out that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) keeps reminding publishers that dressing up ads as journalism calls for clear labeling on the product. Mary Engle, associate director of advertising practices for the FTC, explained that “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 tries to define when paid content crosses the line, Russia has used old-school print advertorials, some of which masquerade as newspaper supplements, to its advantage. Consider such a supplement as an advertorial 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.

It’s a fallacy to think only bottom-feeder publications accept advertorial supplements to bolster their revenue streams. In fact, Russia tends to run its advertorial supplements in Tier 1 media to gain a halo effect for its brand-building effort. Here’s what I’m talking about.

The Wall Street Journal 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, the “look and feel” is horse-shoe close to the Journal’s design as you can see in the swath of the paper below.

Russia economy wall street journal

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It seems fair to say that a percent of readers assumed they were reading a product from the Journal.

Once you dig into the content, the articles reflect a journalistic bent that furthers the illusion. The sophistication in the narratives partly comes from 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, again leading to the perception that this is real journalism. And the mix of articles like “The Future of BRICS” and the human-interest features, “Honey, I printed a thyroid gland,” keep with the journalistic storytelling.

Switching to the visual side, industrial-grade images range from an infographic …
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combined economics infographic

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to an illustration with a smidgen of levity …
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UFA Summit cartoon

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Can you spot Waldo, the one guy experiencing heartburn over the collaboration?

Politics to the side, it’s an impressive piece of propaganda from Team Russia’s marketing machine.

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 (at the time), Russia shelled out in the neighborhood of $2.5M for the supplement.

Did The Wall Street Journal in a sense collude with Russia and try to fool the reader with the supplement?

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

Regardless, it seems likely that Russia will continue to exploit the gray areas of communications gunning for the outsider’s perception: “you’re just like us … minus an acuity in computer science.”

Quartz introduced a channel last month called “Propaganda” under the premise that “people need to be more aware of where information comes from and how it’s crafted. As Quartz editor Gideon Lichfield puts it:

“We are going through a transformation in both our understanding of how to manipulate public opinion and our power to do so. The greatest power will, of course, go to those with the most resources — large countries, big companies, powerful political movements. Ordinary citizens and many journalistic outlets will be outgunned.”

I believe Russia qualifies under the “large country” category.


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