The articles don't mention specific products, but are short "lifestyle" pieces geared toward the particular site's demographics. The article in Salon, for example, chronicles the journey of two ex-dot-commers on an "Eco-Odyssey" around the world. The pair, Drew Weiner and Val Sarver, kept an online journal where they posted photos and stories from their trip, and also operated an email newsletter. All, of course, with the help of the fine Sony products featured on the right side of the page.
The article is labeled "feature by Sony advertising series" above the text and in the page title, but the byline is "Mark Yarm," and the page look and feel is otherwise identical to any other Salon story page. That's what set off the original Metafilter poster, who calls him or herself 4easypayments.
"Is this sort of thing ever ethical? ... Clearly the ad/articles are intended to appear to be regular content," 4easypayments asks. My first thought was "No! Never!" Readers place their faith and trust in the news media precisely because of the strict "separation of church and state." When your job is to shine the Mag-Lite of truth into the dark corners of the world, I thought, it behooves you to be avoid even the slightest whiff of impropriety. After all, what sites like Salon and Parent Soup do, what all news organizations do, is far too important to risk any taint of crass commercial influence. It has long been newsroom gospel that the wall between editorial and advertising has got to be tougher than a RubberMaid trash barrel.
Of course, as several Metafilter posters pointed out immediately, "advertorials" are nothing particularly new. Magazines have run them for ages, though usually with more markedly different layout from their regular editorial features. In fact, scrolling through the discussion, I was struck by how blase most posters were about it. "It happens all the time," was a common refrain. "Whatever keeps salon afloat, I guess." said delmoi.
That got me thinking. I chewed pensively on the end of a Bic Soft Touch Roller pen, absentmindedly admiring its comfortably ergonomic grip, as I considered this point. Between the ongoing ad slump and weblogs draining their audience, the real news media are having an awfully hard time making it these days. It costs a lot of money to keep up the high standards of journalistic excellence to which we've become all too accustomed. After all, I thought, a Chevy Avalanche might be able to change from a truck to an SUV, but it won't go anywhere unless you put gas in it. The newspeople can't do their important jobs if there isn't any money coming in. Maybe a fluffy advertorial now and then isn't going to do any lasting harm.
But just when I found myself waffling like an Eggo, I noticed that the New York Times has turned down this campaign. As reported in AdAge, New York Times digital nixed the new Sony capaign because "on NYTimes.com, advertorial content must be clearly labeled to distinguish it from editorial content, and we were unable to agree upon a program ... that would meet these advertising acceptability guidelines."
Well that cast the doubt from my mind faster than a Shimano Calcutta TE reel can cast a Black Mamba lure. The Gray Lady has long stood for the ultimate in journalistic excellence, and if they said no to this, the oddsmakers in sunny and family-friendly Las Vegas are going to tell you that's the right answer.
While advertising fads may come and go, and online news is still finding its economic feet, the bedrock principles of this noble profession don't change with the winds. Other sites may compromise their integrity, but we can take heart that the core ethics of journalism remain sound as long as we know that we'll never find the venerable New York Times pimping for Sony.