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.