Sponsored content gets even more slippery: Disappearing disclosures and other dirty tricks designed to fool readers

Trudy Lieberman is a veteran health care journalist and regular blogger for HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @Trudy_Lieberman.

[Editor’s note: The Guardian has responded to concerns raised in this post regarding disappearing sponsor disclosures; please see the addendum at the bottom of the post.]

As a reader of health stories, I don’t like to be deceived.  As a press critic, I dislike it even more. That’s why a story tweeted by The Guardian a few weeks ago — “Treatments for cancers and Alzheimer’s on the verge of a breakthrough” — prompted a further read. The word “breakthrough” often signals drug industry fingerprints may be lurking somewhere in the copy. Sure enough they were. I spotted quotes from officials representing Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GSK, and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and only one from a possibly independent voice, that of a neuroscience professor from University College London. Was I seeing an old-fashioned ad, a legit story, or native advertising that looks, feels, and smells like the traditional news and feature stories that surround it?

It’s the Wild Wild West out there

The answer gets to the crux of a serious and rapidly emerging dilemma for consumers of health news. What’s real journalism and what’s “content” masquerading as journalism as we know it?  Examining stories on The Guardian’s Healthcare Network site and on STAT, the fledgling digital news service that’s making a name for itself with loads of daily content, I discovered a blending of traditional stories with advertising and promotion that simply fools the reader. Promotional copy looks like news stories; headlines are similar if not indistinguishable; bylines are ambiguous; and labeling is far from consistent. When it comes to native advertising it’s the Wild, Wild West out there in News Land.

My hunch about The Guardian’s breakthrough story proved correct. Not only was the headline deceptive—the cures wouldn’t be available for another 10 or 20 years—so was the byline of Kim Thomas and the teensy-weensy type above her name which read, “This content is supported by sponsors.” Then, before I could blink, that line disappeared (see screenshots below). The same thing happened when we tried several more times. Who is Kim Thomas? The story didn’t say. Was she a publicist for GSK or AstraZeneca? A staff writer at The Guardian?  A freelancer? Or a researcher for some other organization?  Thomas, it turns out, is a freelancer specializing in education and technology, but who were those vanishing sponsors? A good guess might be the drug makers or the trade association whose officials Thomas quoted, but readers don’t know for sure. 



Bylines and labels that confuse instead of clarify

I checked other Guardian stories and found a curious mix. The byline on a piece about a new gene therapy for vision loss simply said “Press Association,” hardly a common byline. Another story about how a brain implant helped a paralyzed man regain partial control of his hand apparently was written by “Ian Sample, Science editor,” which conveyed that this might be legitimate reporting about this new mobility technology. But the story read like a puff piece bordering on promotion — perhaps inspired by Ohio State University’s communications department tasked with showcasing the innovation of university researchers.

This one on The Guardian website, “Eight technologies that could change healthcare beyond recognition,” described such “wonders” as smartphones and online communities but also genome sequencing, digital therapy, and implantable drug-delivery mechanisms. It seemed much like the piece bylined by Sample, the science editor, and carried the dual bylines of Matthew Honeyman identified as a policy researcher for the Kings’ Fund, a prominent UK foundation, and Dr. Cosima Gretton, an academic foundation doctor at an NHS foundation trust. A closer look, though, revealed it was sponsored content, and the Guardian’s vanishing act appeared again. In tiny type above the byline, it read, “Supported by ABPI,” words that disappeared as I attempted to read the story. Still, the tale of eight wonders offered a smidge more transparency than the “breakthrough” story, identifying, at least for a couple of seconds, the sponsor’s name before it quickly disappeared. Would that perhaps be the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry whose executive director for research was quoted in the “breakthrough” piece?

In January The Guardian announced it was changing how it labeled paid content. Content paid for and controlled by advertisers would be labeled “paid content” or “paid for by,” instead of “brought to you by.”  Content funded by sponsors but created by Guardian reporters is supposed to be labeled “supported by” instead of the “sponsored by” tag line it previously carried. In my albeit small sample, The Guardian seemed to carry out the letter of its new policy, but not the spirit as reflected by the vanishing disclosures.

Readers are tasked with connecting the dots

A perseverant and interested reader of the “technology wonders” story, for example, would have to spot the disappearing label, figure out who the ABPI is, and then connect the dots that might suggest drug industry involvement. That’s a lot of work for all but the most skeptical consumers. Most would give little thought to the absence of clear disclosure even for what’s unmistakably an industry puff piece.

That’s exactly the hope of native advertising sponsors. “The whole point is to disguise marketing material as editorial content,” says John Carroll, a professor of mass communications at Boston University. He told me native advertising breaks down the natural skepticism about advertising and assumes the gloss of credibility most legitimate editorial content brings. “Transparency is basically self-defeating,” he explained. “The whole point of putting a wolf in sheep’s clothing is that they don’t appear to be ads.”

Is STAT doing that when it routinely drops sponsored content into the “Morning Rounds,” its daily menu of legitimate medical and health stories?  Its trompe L‘oeil content trips me up every time I go to the site. When I first caught on to what STAT was doing, I felt deceived like I was when I read The Guardian’s breakthrough piece. The pooh-bahs at STAT are making it easy for me to read something I don’t want to read and confusing me with look-alike content prepared by some of the biggest names in the healthcare business— Cigna, CVS Health, Johnson & Johnson, Baxalta, a new biopharmaceutical company, and PhRMA whose contributions to Morning Rounds have included “America’s biopharmaceutical researchers and scientists are tireless in the fight against disease” and “Imagine “smart bombs” that fight cancer and reduce side effects.”

STAT PhRMA sponsorshipWe do know the influential trade group has embarked on a strategy for pushing back against the current public outrage over high drug prices, and STAT’s audience is undoubtedly a peachy target for its messages. Baxalta contributed this: “Inspired by your fearless innovation.” “Johnson & Johnson’s contribution: “Measuring the true value of innovation,” a Q and A with two drug company officials offering their thoughts on what innovation will look like in the future and how J & J approaches innovation. The problem is that this sponsored stuff is similar to some legitimate news content also on the STAT site, like this somewhat boosterish piece last week,  “No stranger to gambling, this biotech CEO is going all-in on a first drug approval.” [Editor’s Note: HealthNewsReview.org routinely applauds the excellent journalism that is also occurring at STAT, such as in this 5-Star Friday post that singled out two STAT pieces for accolades.]

STAT sponsor content CVSIn short, it’s not always easy to spot the sponsored content on STAT’s site. The small red label that identifies sponsored content (see screengrab above) blends too easily with the same size green, blue, and black labels that tag STAT’S own content. The headlines are the same size whether sponsored content or written by STAT staffers. Clever heds make the content seem legit like this one from CVS Health, “Mitigating rising prescription drug costs.” Any newspaper in the country could put that headline on a story. The words “Sponsor Content” appear at the bottom of each promotional box for the story the same as bylines of STAT reporters, but they’re in smaller type than the STAT bylines and hard to spot especially on a smartphone.

Violations of FTC guidelines on sponsored content

All this mixing of news and advertising has troubled the Federal Trade Commission, which has the power to prohibit deceptive or unfair business practices, including native advertising. Shortly before The Guardian made its “better” labeling announcement, the FTC  announced its guidelines for good sponsored content behavior on the part of publishers who use it.

  • Ads and promotional messages shouldn’t suggest or imply that they are anything other than an ad.
  • Sometimes disclosures are necessary to ensure consumers understand that the content is advertising.
  • If disclosures are necessary to prevent deception, they must be clear and prominent.

In FTC speak that means disclosures should stand out so consumers can easily read or find them. It’s hard to see that the teensy-weensy disappearing type of The Guardian’s breakthrough story qualifies or the itty-bitty type at the end of a STAT sponsored content copy block informing visitors they are reading a word from the sponsors. The agency says disclosures must be understandable—no technical or industry jargon, no different terminology to mean the same thing in different places on a publisher’s site, no unfamiliar icons or abbreviations. I take that to mean a prohibition on acronyms like ABPI, for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the presumed sponsor of the technological wonders story.  The FTC also suggests that sponsorship disclosures are best positioned immediately in front of or above a native ad’s headline where consumers are most likely to notice them. STAT signals sponsorship with its red label above the headline, but the sponsor’s name is disclosed at the bottom where readers may that miss that “Mitigating rising prescription drug costs” is sponsored by CVS health.

An old practice takes on new urgency

In early April Adweek reported that MediaRadar, a sales enablement platform used by ad salespeople to prospect for business, found that if the FTC were to audit native ads today about 70 percent of publisher’s websites would not comply with the FTC’s guidelines. That’s hardly surprising given how lucrative native ads have become. Says Carroll, “Many publications see native advertising as a lifeline, and some studies show it’s more effective than traditional marketing approaches.” Traditional display ads don’t work as well in digital formats and are too plentiful to be of much use as a revenue generator, he added. A  study released by Facebook projects revenue from Facebook’s Audience Network will amount to some $53 billion by 2020—about two-thirds of all mobile display advertising revenue.  With so much money sloshing around, it’s easy to see why publishers aren’t too keen to comply with type size requirements or rules for disclosure placement.

Native advertising isn’t new in America. It  goes back at least to the late nineteenth century when such ads were called reading notices which placed brand and company names in news stories without any disclaimers. Publishers liked them because they were more profitable than conventional advertising. Today the problem for health news consumers and health journos is that because medicine has become so corporatized with vast sums of money at stake, the need for clarity and transparency takes on a new urgency so patients will not be duped. The entire U.S. health system exists for Americans to sell things to each other, Canada’s pre-eminent health economist Robert Evans once told me. The blending of legitimate health news with paid advertising content — no matter what it’s called — makes that point clearer than ever.

Addendum 5/17/16:

Some commenters wrote to alert us that sponsor disclosures on certain Guardian articles did not in fact disappear from their screens as claimed in this post. These comments conflicted with observations from multiple individuals across the U.S. and Canada who confirmed that the sponsor disclosures did disappear. To clear up the confusion, Trudy Lieberman wrote to The Guardian, which put us in touch with Kerry Eustice, editor, editorial partnerships, who responded as follows:

The “vanishing disclosures” you describe are a bug on our website – and one we were unaware of until receiving your email. Disclosures definitely shouldn’t be disappearing, and as soon as you highlighted this we worked urgently with our tech team to correct this.

It has now been resolved and the logos sponsorships are appearing properly on the page.

We believe a geo-targeting error caused the sponsor’s logo to appear only to UK readers instead of globally, as intended. In order to prevent these sorts of errors going forward, we are currently developing a new system to better manage and serve logos across our website.

I combed through all our currently funded series across Guardian US to ensure all the logos were present and correct, and they were. But if you notice any other logo issues, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

These links show how sponsors’ logos should appear on “supported by” content pages across the Guardian, regardless of where readers are located:

All “supported by” content is completely independent from our sponsors and philanthropic partners, which have no say in what we do or do not publish as part of these projects (and don’t get to see any stories we are publishing in advance). The sponsorships enable our editorial teams to launch new projects and pursue new topics that we wouldn’t otherwise have the budget to cover. Here are our full guidelines around commercial content.

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Comments (11)

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Kim Thomas

May 12, 2016 at 9:57 am

If you wanted to find out about the commissioning process at the Guardian, and how this article in particular was commissioned, I’d have been happy to talk you through it. My details are very easy to find.

A few points:
1. You say that the line “This content is supported by sponsors” disappears after a few seconds. I’ve just clicked on the article to check for myself. That line does indeed disappear, but it is immediately replaced by text reading “Supported by abpi”. The ABPI logo is displayed very clearly. I don’t know why you can’t see this – perhaps you’re using ad blocking software?
2. You write: “Who is Kim Thomas? The story didn’t say.” This is because the Guardian website has two ways of showing contributor details. If someone is an occasional contributor, they will include a line explaining who the person is. If they are a regular contributor, they have a contributor profile that you can see by clicking on their name. It works the same way throughout the Guardian website and is not particular to sponsored content.
3. The ABPI had no editorial control over the content of the piece. It was commissioned in exactly the same way as any other Guardian article. I was not told who to interview.
4. I didn’t write the headline, but the worst you can say about it is that it oversimplifies the content. (You might, incidentally, want to rethink your own headline that accuses a reputable national newspaper of “dirty tricks” when there is no evidence to support it.)

    Kevin Lomangino

    May 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm


    Regarding your point #1, I’ve now checked with three other contributors in the U.S. and Canada who, in addition to Trudy and I, all report that the line “This content is supported by sponsors” disappears and is not replaced by the logo you mention. To my knowledge, I am not using any ad-blocking software. As a news consumer, this seems very much like a “dirty trick” to me.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor

      Lynley Oram

      May 12, 2016 at 3:08 pm

      The logo and company name appears prominently when I look at the article, just as Kim says.

      Kim Thomas

      May 13, 2016 at 1:48 am

      Kevin, I can assure you that I and a number of others can see the logo. Which is more likely:
      a) the Guardian has, for its own opaque reasons, designed the site so that the logo can be seen by some people and not by others or b) it’s a software glitch?

      It seems extraordinary to me that you would leap to the conclusion that this is an example of “dirty tricks” without doing the minimum of investigation first. Have you contacted the Guardian to ask them why the logo isn’t visible?

      Judith finch

      May 13, 2016 at 1:55 am

      I can also see both the sponsor message and the name of the sponsor. It hasn’t disappeared yet. I am reading it on an iPad. Do you think it is a technology issue at your end?

      Patricia Carswell

      May 13, 2016 at 4:37 am

      I’ve tried it both on my phone and my desktop and the apbi logo appears on both. I’d attach or paste a screenshot but that doesn’t seem to be possible in your comments section.

Shan P Kelly

May 12, 2016 at 11:55 am


    Trudy Lieberman

    May 12, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    Kim, Thank you for your comments. I have been around this barn for a long time and know very well reporters usually are aware of who is is sponsoring their stories or who is paying for this story or that one. Reporters also know how far they can go and what they need to do to make sure they get the next commission. The influence of sponsorship may not be overt. It’s subtle, but it’s usually there whether or not a reporter wants to acknowledge it.

    Aleta Kerrick

    May 16, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Re Shan’s comment/query: “Native” has multiple meanings, so taking offense seems unduly touchy. However, it is a curious and little-known term. The article would have been strengthened by briefly explaining its meaning and history, rather than assuming all readers would understand the term.

Kevin Lomangino

May 14, 2016 at 5:55 pm

We have contacted The Guardian to ascertain why the disclosures we called attention to in this post disappear from the screens of multiple readers across the U.S. and Canada — and yet seem to be visible to some other commenters. Is this an issue related to ad-blocking software as some have suggested? If that’s the case, why would a disclosure be served up to readers in a way that it might be blocked by such software? We’ll let you know what we find out.

Kevin Lomangino
Managing Editor

Kevin Lomangino

May 17, 2016 at 2:55 pm

As noted in the addendum on 5/17, The Guardian attributes the vanishing disclosures discussed in this post to a technical error that caused the logos not to appear to readers outside of the U.K.