Calling out BS on “Promoted stories”

We got some nice recognition from Rodale, Inc. this week, which included our work in their first “Rodale 100” list “honoring trailblazers positively impacting lives around the world.”  They published a nice article about our work, “Meet the Guy Who Calls Out B.S. Health News For a Living.”  (They didn’t use the part of the interview where I explained how I went without a living for 19 months when this project was unfunded and almost dead in the water.)

We appreciate the recognition of our work.

But anyone who knows our work knows we don’t shy away from “calling out BS” on any media practice by anyone that we think is unhelpful to the public dialogue.  And so, when a journalist on Twitter pointed out that the Men’s Health (Rodale) website praised our work on one page, but at the bottom of the same page “made work” for us, too, I took a second look. (Another Tweep wrote: “Ironic that Rodale is praising him when their publications are among worst offenders.”)  And here’s some of what was on that same page:

Men's Health "promoted stories"

 

At the bottom of the page were some “PROMOTED STORIES.” When I clicked on the link to this “story,” it wasn’t immediately clear what I was reading.  It looked like a story.  It had a byline.  But there was absolutely no data, no evidence, to back up the anti-aging claims made in the piece.  And then when I read about a 120-day money back guarantee, I knew I had entered the twilight zone.  At the bottom of the page was a disclaimer:

THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT AND NOT AN ACTUAL NEWS ARTICLE, BLOG, CONSUMER REVIEW, OR CONSUMER PROTECTION UPDATE. THE STORY IS A DRAMATIZATION AND FICTIONAL.

Maybe that should have been put up at the top.

Maybe Men’s Health shouldn’t promote it as a “story” on the same page where they’re recognizing the work of a “guy who calls out B.S. health news for a living.”

There were other similar fake news stories on the same web page.  One, under the banner “Health Headlines” delivered “How to Fix Dark Eye Circles.” The “story” told of two cosmetic surgeons who “shocked both industry colleagues and members of the press, with an astonishing anti-aging breakthrough.” By now I was primed to scroll to the bottom of the page, where I found:

THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT AND NOT AN ACTUAL NEWS ARTICLE, BLOG, OR CONSUMER PROTECTION UPDATE

How does this kind of stuff happen?

Two years ago, Paul Farhi wrote in the Washington Post, “You’ll never believe how recommended stories are generated on otherwise serious news sites.”  He explained that some such “promoted stories” are chosen by robots or “recommendation engines.” He wrote:

The recommendation engines do more than promote another site’s stories. Many of the links in those “Around the Web” and “Recommended for You” sections are for promotional content created by marketers, blurring the line between news and advertising. ….

Each time someone clicks on a recommended link, the host site and the recommendation companies share about 3 cents, a figure that can rise depending on a variety of factors.

“The idea is, your audience is going to leave [your site], anyway,” (one guy in the business) says. “This is a way for you to get paid when your audience leaves.”

There are probably many other ways these wolf ads dressed in sheep’s clothing show up on news or magazine websites.  I can’t keep up.  But calling something a “promoted story” was misleading to me and I assume it is to many others.

Below the “promoted story” section was another section called “More from Men’s Health.”  The first one I saw was not an ad, but it almost felt like one. Instead, it was a Men’s Health news story.

Men's Health story copy“Find out how this 75-year-old is having sex like he’s 18 again,” was the subheading.

The closest the story got to any discussion of evidence is this:

“About 25,000 penile implant surgeries are performed each year, (one doctor) says, and 94 percent of patients who underwent the procedure reported they were satisfied with the results 2 years later.”

That’s a loaded sentence.  First, what’s the source of the 25,000 estimate besides this doctor who does the surgery?  And what does 94% satisfied mean?  Satisfaction is as squishy a metric as one can imagine, especially with this topic.  One man’s satisfaction might be another man’s perceived failure.  What were the ages of the 94% who were satisfied?  What was their general health?  What amount of sexual activity did they consider acceptable?

The only two physicians interviewed were two who use and recommend the procedure.  Hmm.  Just like an ad.

Another actual Men’s Health story on this same page boasted, “Boost Your Testosterone Instantly.” The story stated: “Men’s T levels surged more than 30 percent when they won competitive domino matches.” The only person quoted was an anthropologist-researcher who co-authored a study.  A study supposedly published in a journal, Human Nature, which was hyperlinked. I wanted to see that study so I clicked on the link and it took me to a “nature” products page on the Walmart website.  Nature, get it?  Advertising, get it?

I’d seen enough.  This was no place for someone like me who wants to see studies and evidence behind the headlines.

Let me be clear: Men’s Health has featured some terrific work by journalists such as Jim Thornton and Laura Beil.  And it was nice to have Rodale write nice things about our work. But there are some wild inconsistencies and readers notice these.  It’s time to clean up some of these editorial/advertising eyesores.

True to what they said about me, I’m calling out some BS on these practices.

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