Do BuzzFeed’s native political ads cross a line?

Photo: AP

A major player in the explosion of online native ads, BuzzFeed is perhaps the most prominent outlet yet to promise sponsored content for political candidates. The company announced last week that it will create and sell native advertising for office seekers in 2016, a potentially lucrative move in an election cycle that is expected to see $1 billion spent on digital ads, up from just $22 million in 2008. The move could herald in a new marriage between political ad spending and journalism.

But can viewers distinguish untethered political news and fluff from ads designed to look like the real thing? The issue appears more pressing here, considering votes and public opinion are at stake, rather than cat food. “It seems to be something more sinister, taking money from politicians,” Dillon Baker, an associate editor at the brand marketing giant Contently, tells CJR.

The news business has always banked on campaign spending, but the native ad’s ability to blend in, and even impress, is swelling. At the same time, studies often reveal conflicting consumer perceptions of native ads, or “sponsored content,” and the news organizations that post them. Most participants in a study published last month by Contently mistook the promotions for independent journalism. More than 60 percent of the subjects in that study claimed not to trust websites that publish native ads, though the survey also found that the number of people who “felt deceived” by sponsored content has dropped 15 percent since last year.

BuzzFeed piloted native political ads in the 2012 election. One video paid for by President Barack Obama’s campaign appeared on the site under the headline, “What Mitt Romney’s ‘Binders Full Of Women’ Says About His Views.” The page included two disclaimers alerting visitors to the “paid political” ad, along with a byline that read “Obama for America, Brand Publisher.” Whether the labels made a sufficient impact on audiences remains unclear.

Rena Shapiro, who ran the political ad division of the internet radio site Pandora, recently came on as a vice president heading BuzzFeed’s politics and advocacy advertising arm. She has reportedly targeted videos and social media posts as fertile ground for labeled campaign ads, which will be generated by the product team and BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, a Hollywood-based film studio with billions of views. A spokesperson declined to make Shapiro and other employees available to CJR.

The company intends to wall off the team from its newsroom, which has grown significantly, both in size and impact, in recent years. The site’s politics desk now consists of an in-house opposition research group and 17 reporters, including six on the campaign trail. They will be physically separated from Shapiro and her staff, forbidden from working on her projects, and free to pursue negative coverage of sponsors, a spokesperson says.

But conflicts have arisen before. In April, BuzzFeed faced criticism after it took down a post critical of Dove soap, an advertiser on the site. Editor in chief Ben Smith later reinstated the article but maintained that its removal had nothing to do with pressure from the sponsor. Some observers, however, saw the move as a blow to the site’s credibility. When it comes to covering presidential candidates who may also be advertisers, the company will have to take measures not only to ensure, but also highlight its editorial independence.

Newsrooms across the country are already in the business of selling native ads for advocacy and lobbying groups. Politico launched Politico Focus this year to help organizations reach its highly influential Beltway audience. The division recently published its first big piece, a call by an advocacy group for Congress to pump more funding into cancer research. The interactive piece, which is sharply designed and rich in facts, sits below a blue “sponsored content” tag and a link to a definition of the term.

Stephanie Losee, the editorial director of Politico Focus, says the information-driven nature of this “sponsored content” mandates actual reporting and factchecking. “The one thing that I would not do, that Politico would not do, is to mislead or trick a reader,” she says. “The goal is to inform our reader with full transparency.” While the objective is commendable, such ads contain arguments—and spin—that could sway unsuspecting readers. Yet Losee is reluctant to simply label the material an “advertisement,” a common move in the industry, as Poynter noted last week. Losee argues that sponsored content, often used to fulfill corporate responsibility initiatives, offers more value than a traditional ad.

Politico has not yet decided whether it will greenlight sponsored content for political campaigns. “Stadium moments” like debates and announcements lie ahead, Losee adds, which could spur enticing opportunities for the publication and potential advertisers. She says her team will evaluate each request individually. Cross-town rival The Hill has also churned out sponsored content on policy and Washington-fueled industry, but not yet on political candidates. Publisher Adam Prather says native ads funded by candidates would not represent a drastic step for the newspaper provided the material did not come from the newsroom, met standards of “decency,” and was clearly marked. 

Some observers believe that sponsored political content will soon become an industry standard. “If you talk to me in 10 years, I think, native advertising will absolutely have a firm place in political advertising,” says Kip Cassino, an executive vice president for Borrell Associates, an ad-spending research firm. Publishers have good reason to expand their native client base. Research from Moz marketing firm says BuzzFeed won’t accept less than $100,000 for native ads.

But The Hill and Politico have engaged readerships—congressional staffers and the like—better-suited to recognize native ads for what they are. BuzzFeed offers a smorgasbord of in-depth investigations and breaking news alongside light videos and goofy listicles. “I suspect that the average visitor to the BuzzFeed website does not really see the difference, maybe doesn’t care about the difference between sponsored and non-sponsored information,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It’s also unclear how BuzzFeed’s millennial audience—an attractive draw for campaigns—will react to native political ads. While the outlet’s sponsored content remains marked as such on social media websites, the notice does not jump off the screen. It’s a rarely-discussed problem inherent to social media shares, in which the source of a piece of content can be masked or obscured as it flies across the social Web.

In an age when the power of TV and online display ads is plummeting, ads on a site like BuzzFeed could reach an untold number of young voters. Native advertising works best, after all, when it’s tailored for a specific audience, says Chasen Campbell, vice president of strategy at Harris Media, a digital ad company working with US Senator and presidential hopeful Rand Paul. “For this kind of advertising it’s really persuasion,” he says. “You have a story and you want to own the message for whichever side you are on, on that particular thing.”

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Jack Murtha and Chava Gourarie are CJR Delacorte Fellows.