Clarence Fanto: Lines blur between ads and content


LENOX -- During the flawed but still powerful live telecast of "The Sound of Music" on NBC Thursday night, viewed by nearly 19 million people, it was jarring to see the quick cuts from scenes in the great Rodgers & Hammerstein classic to a Wal-Mart commercial designed at first glance to look like another scene from the show. It depicted a Kansas family with a brood of 12 kids spreading Christmas cheer.

Blurring the lines between entertainment and advertising has been a mainstay of TV since its earliest days -- many network shows were identified by their sponsors (Colgate, Alcoa, Kraft, to cite a few). Series stars delivered ads implying endorsement of the products.

Even the first nightly NBC newscast, hosted by John Cameron Swayze from 1949-56, was titled the "Camel News Caravan." Swayze did the ads, cigarette in hand, of course.

Other stars from TV's first decade -- Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke -- also performed "messages from our sponsor." Perhaps the so-called golden age was more tarnished than we like to recall.

Fast-forward to the present, as the well-worn phrase translated from the French comes to mind -- "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

As reported by The New York Times, cast commercials are back, though the advertising industry calls it "content marketing." It's all about compromising the separation between entertainment and the ads. ABC has shown actors from prime-time series such as "Revenge" and "Modern Family" shilling for Target.

NBCUniversal has a department called the "client solutions group" and its executive vice president, Alison Tarrant, describes cast commercials as designed to "create content that's entertaining and shareable ... a beautiful balance of the entertainment and the natural presence of the brand message."

She explained that the "storytelling component" of these ads is valuable because sponsors believe that spinning yarns instead of huckstering makes the commercials more palatable and less annoying.

But there's an even more disturbing trend that has caught the eye of the Federal Trade Commission, whose mandate includes protecting us from deceptive advertising.

Online and increasingly in print, articles produced by professional journalists are mingled with "sponsored content" or "native advertising" -- commercials designed to mimic news. Twitter is the major and most prominent offender.

To its credit, the commission has put out an alert that it plans to strongly enforce guidelines against misleading ads. It held a conference for advertisers in Washington, D.C., this past week to drive home the point.

It turns out that 73 percent of online publishers offer "native advertising" options and 17 percent more are considering the practice. Even The New York Times is joining the party, starting next year.

For advertisers, the beauty of "sponsored content" is that they can measure the payoff immediately by the number of readers who click on their messages.

The debate between the government watchdogs and the companies focuses on how a sales pitch is presented. But the sponsors shy away from using the "a" word to identify their messages. "Brought to you by," "sponsored by" or "presented by" are slightly more palatable.

As Robert Weissman, the head of the advocacy group Public Citizen, put it: "The word ‘advertisement' tells people what is being done to them. The whole point of the word ‘sponsored' is to avoid calling it what it is."

Some website owners and publishers push back, arguing that readers are savvy enough to know the difference between an ad and news. But it would be hard to argue that "product placement" in TV shows and movies -- where it seems everyone using a computer, has taken a bite of the Apple -- is clearly recognized by the audience.

I was quite stunned, perhaps out of naiveté, when I discovered that a site called has its ads prepared by reporters and editors. As a Mashable executive explained, the site's tech journalists create advertising "because it allows us to go more in depth" in reporting news.

Does the public even care? At the University of San Francisco's law school, Professor David J. Franklyn told The Times that his research shows that up to 35 percent of the people in groups he studied could not identify an advertisement even when it said "advertisement" on it, while about half didn't know what "sponsored content" meant.

Besides, he added, one-third of his study group claimed to not care whether something is an ad or news, and many of those said they would be more likely to click through to an item if they knew it was an ad.

Let's hope the good professor's research was half-baked, or unbaked. Otherwise, those of us who worry about this are whistling in the dark.

To contact Clarence Fanto:


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions