Sponsored content: Boston Globe + Pfizer = News? Really?

Michael Joyce produces multimedia at HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

A Pfizer biopharmaceutical scientist reads a letter from the daughter of a woman with Parkinson’s disease.

The very real tribulations of the mother, as described by the daughter, are heart-wrenching.

The scientist is clearly affected by the real-world devastation of a disease he knows best through his laboratory work.

And the effect on the reader/viewer of this content is undoubtedly visceral.

Welcome to the world of sponsored content

In this case, the players involved are:  Pfizer Pharmaceutical (which currently has a Parkinson’s drug in Phase II trials) and the Boston Globe ‘Brand Lab’ — or BG Brand Lab — the ‘content marketing’ arm of the nearly 150-year-old newspaper. Their explicit goals, according to their website, are:

  • “to engage consumers and encourage brand loyalty through thoughtful, creative content”
  • “communicate a brand’s ideals without using hard sells or explicit messaging”
  • ” measure impressions, clicks, page views, and engagements to tell you exactly how far-reaching your brand’s content has gone and make it go further”

They’ve offered these branding services to ski resorts, housing developments, sports teams, and pet store chains.

But in this case the stakes are different. This isn’t lift lines, granite countertops, or cat toys. We’re talking about a devastating neurologic disease that affects roughly 10-million people worldwide.

Without supporting evidence to back him up, should the scientist really be saying: “I personally believe we’re going to find a cure. And I don’t say that lightly”?

And do the article or video educate us about the disease? Barely. Is it made clear that the content is sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant? Depends.

In the online version (erroneously identified as ‘the print version’ in our original post) there is small print above the article (“This content is sponsored by Pfizer”), and this snippet — in much smaller font — tucked away at the very bottom:

“This content was produced by Boston GlobeMedia’s BG BrandLab in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.”

A deliberate attempt to disguise

But the Pfizer content is seamlessly integrated into the paper’s news content. So is it news or blatant marketing? And isn’t it true that the Boston Globe … sorry, “BG” … Brand Lab, and the Boston Globe newspaper are both part of BostonGlobe Media?

John Carroll

It’s a confusing shell game leaving the burden squarely on readers to answer this critical question: are the business and editorial sides of this tête-à-tête separated or not?

This is the modus operandi of sponsored content according to John Carroll, a professor of mass communications at Boston University. In an article by Trudy Lieberman we published last year, he explained that sponsored content (aka ‘native advertising’) is specifically designed to capitalize on such ambiguity:

“The whole point is to disguise marketing material as editorial content … transparency is basically self-defeating. The whole point of putting a wolf in sheep’s clothing is that they don’t appear to be ads.”

Here are what proponents of sponsored content usually argue are the primary benefits of the strategy:

  • conventional advertising, especially online, repels readers … but … native advertising is less obtrusive and also less recognizable as advertising.
  • sponsored content arrangements provide much needed revenue to newspapers … keeping them solvent and able to churn out more news
  • sponsors benefit from the reach, credibility, and authority of trusted news organizations
  • much of the content is written by trained journalists who have migrated from newsrooms to PR organizations … so the writing is ‘journalistic’

And here are what critics often say about this marketing strategy:

  • a deliberate attempt to disguise overt marketing as ‘journalism’ is, by definition, deceptive
  • news organizations complicit in blurring the distinction between business and editorial interests are undermining a fundamental ethic of journalism, as well as their own credibility
  • If a quid pro quo exists between the news organization and the sponsor, that is unethical; even in the absence of proof of such an arrangement, the perception of influence is damaging to journalism and conveys the possibility of news sources being biased/conflicted at their source
Adriane Fugh-Berman MD

Adriane Fugh-Berman MD

‘The last bastion of objectivity’

“The last bastion of objectivity should be journalism,” says Adriane Fugh-Berman MD, a Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at Georgetown University.

She is also director of Pharmed Out, a project dedicated to evidence-based prescribing, and educating health care professionals about  pharmaceutical marketing.

“Sponsored content like this can easily have consumers thinking it’s actual news, rather than simply a public relations puff piece. My main concern is that credible newspapers even get involved in this sort of content; in this case, setting the stage for Pfizer’s Stage II Parkinson’s drug that won’t even be on the market for several years. Why are legitimate newspapers even going along with this sort of thing?”

But more and more are.

Sponsored content is now commonplace and common practice for major news organizations such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, Washington Post, Wired, and BuzzFeed.

The 2014 Pew State of the Media Report cited projected annual revenues of nearly $5 billion dollars for native advertising by the end of this year.

But does widespread implementation and financial success justify more news organizations adopting sponsored content as the win-win arrangement many tout it to be?

John Watson, a professor of media law at American University, thinks not. In an interview published earlier this week in the Harvard Political Review, he framed it like this:

“It is the equivalent of saying: ‘I must commit some crimes to raise money so I can continue to fight crime’.”

At a time when the integrity of journalism is being challenged by even our own White House, the last thing we need is to assure the future of journalism by way of deception.

We’re at the crossroads. Let’s not put our objectivity up for sale.

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