Disguising ads as stories

"Storytelling" and "storytellers" have become code words for corporatized news

Last month, when Conde Nast announced the launch of 23 Stories, its branded content studio that gives marketers “unparalleled access” to its “editorial assets,” the company made its narrative expertise a central part of the sales pitch. “As clients seek to elevate their storytelling and define themselves as publishers, we believe Condé Nast is uniquely qualified to partner with them to deliver compelling content, targeted to the right audiences at scale,” CMO Edward Menicheschi said in the press release.

Questions continue to swirl about whether or not native advertising will undermine the credibility of news by mimicking its content and style. But despite these news ethics concerns, native advertising is becoming an increasingly important revenue generator for major news outlets far beyond Conde Nast, including at The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and The Atlantic, all of whom have dedicated resources to creating branded content in-house.

They’ve also attempted to sidestep the critique that sponsored content compromises a news brand by putting language like “storytelling” and “content,” rather than “advertising,” at the fore. To critics, this amounts to false labeling. In the same way “enhanced interrogation techniques” became a code word for torture, “storytelling” and “storytellers” have become code words for corporatized news.

“The promise that they’re going to do this in-house, Mad Men-style, could generate some cool storytelling experiments,” said Patrick Howe, a journalist-turned-academic at Cal Poly who is researching whether native ads undermine the credibility of news sites. “But for most publishers, native advertising is just another commodity, in exactly the same category as the double click ads and Google AdWords.” In a follow up email, he added, “Most publishers are finding it a hell of a trick to get the tone ‘right.’ To me, [Conde Nast’s] move crosses a line…I predict that editors and writers will find their loyalties divided and the ad-think will inevitably creep into the editorial content.”

Advertorials have always been present in some Conde Nast titles, in its fashion and makeup layouts, so what makes this new direction so troubling is not the creeping ad-think. It’s the creeping cynicism. When the press release says, “Our Industry is evolving, and so too are our ways of storytelling,” what it’s really saying is that branded stories are the future of new media, and those who disagree are behind the times.

But disguising ads—even quality ones—in a way that blurs the distinction between sponsored content and strict editorial likely lowers the credibility of an outlet. The Tow Center, in collaboration with the Reuters Institute, is planning to survey 2,000 respondents in the US, and similar numbers in countries across Europe, creating one of the broadest analyses about credibility, said Fergus Pitt, one of the center’s research fellows.

“We’ve designed questions so we can try to understand what’s happening to brand and reputation, whether consumers gain trust in the brand that’s being advertised, or lose trust in the the host news organization,” he said. “I think we’re expecting to see that affect happen.”

Absent extensive and conclusive study and Federal Trade Commission regulations, ethical due diligence has fallen to consumers, writers, and journalists, turning the moral debate around native ads into a kind of watchdog function by upholding standards for the industry. One could argue that this debate, and even the ads themselves, some of which are clearly labeled, have made the distinction between advertising and editorial more transparent than ever. But last May, Andrew Sullivan worried that journalists were falling silent on the issue. (It’s worth noting that the last time The New York Times ran a pointed, critical piece about storytelling ads was in September, 2013, right before they started doing them).

In the meantime, publishers continue rolling out one sponsored feature after another, while the ad side of “advertorial” constructs the company view on their efficacy, another indication of creeping ad-think.

Conde Nast’s announcement reflects this conflict of interest. According to Kellie Riordan, a journalist and media trainer who has written an extensive report on accuracy, independence, and impartiality in the press, “At its core, journalism is about truth-telling, while advertising and branding are about persuasion. Journalists compromise their independence when they start writing branded copy; you’re not hired to serve the best interests of the readers, to keep anyone accountable, to check facts or to seek the truth—you’re peddling someone’s line.”

Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.