Can 'Advertorial' be a defense?

By Sandesh Prabhudesai
03 November 2011 23:40 IST

A telephonic sting operation conducted by one of our enthusiastic Goan journalist Mayabhushan Nagvenkar on marketing manager of Herald has once again thrown open a debate on ‘paid news’. He disguised himself as Bernard D’Costa, a candidate from Velim constituency in the forthcoming Assembly election, and asked for a paid interview. Tulshidas Desai, marketing manager of Herald, offered him a package – Rs 50,000 for an interview on HCN TV channel and Rs 86,400 for an interview in Herald, Goa’s one of the leading English newspaper.  It was very difficult to counter the sting as the whole telephonic conversation was recorded and the audio files were released.

Mr Desai did not counter. But came in his defense was Herald editor Sujoy Gupta. He expressed total ignorance about such deals being made and emphatically denied of having published any such paid news. During the conversation between Bernard (Nagvenkar) and Desai came a reference of one such write up of Raymond D’Sa, an aspiring candidate from Cortalim for the Congress. Desai tells him that a similar kind of write up would appear, without mentioning it as ‘advertorial,’ while also telling him what amount they have charged Raymond.

Before going ahead with any arguments on this controversy, let me clarify that I have nothing personal against Herald or its editor and my friend Sujoy Gupta. In fact I have a great regard for this newspaper, as a journalist as well as one-time activist, for the historic role this newspaper has played in preserving Goan identity and ethos. Even I have been a regular contributor to this newspaper till recently. The issue I want to highlight here is not against any particular newspaper but a misconception of a concept. Also about media ethics.

Mr Sujoy Gupta’s clarification has been published in a blog on paid news. We have to presume that it is a stand taken by Mr Gupta since he has not denied it till date. The part of his statement states as follows:

“Firstly, I wish to emphatically deny that any editorial content which has appeared in the Herald, without the “advertorial” tag line has been paid for. “

“As Editor, my stated position both within and outside the organisation has been that paid content cannot be disguised as news. Whenever politicians have sent out messages, statements of their achievements and other such information, through a paid route, we have prominently stated that they are advertorials. A case in point is the birthday of Deputy Speaker Mauvin Godinho where there were more than 2 pages of “news” items about Mauvin’s career and achievements. “

“Herald is the only newspaper which used the tag “advertorial” on top of their news pages so that the difference between editorial and advertorial is clearly established. “

Well, what is an advertorial?

I tried searching for the word in the latest possible print edition of Oxford dictionary. I could not find it. But the internet edition had it, stating that it’s a word coined with a combination of words ‘advertisement’ and ‘editorial’ in the US in 1960. The meaning is as follows:

“A newspaper or magazine advertisement giving information about a product in the style of an editorial or objective journalistic article.”

The meaning adds a line below that, which is self-spoken:

Today's newspapers are crammed with advertising and advertorials, and journalists are seen as corrupt by many readers.

The Wikipedia also has a page on Advertorial.  It has one line which explains it all:

Advertorials differ from traditional advertisements in that they are designed to look like the articles that appear in the publication. Most publications will not accept advertisements that look exactly like stories from the newspaper or magazine they are appearing in. The differences may be subtle, and disclaimers—such as the word "advertisement"—may or may not appear.

The Wikipedia further explains how television and radio also exploits these concepts to promote products and business.

It means advertorial is not a word that can be used legitimately by any media – print or electronic. It basically refers to paid advertisement, which looks exactly like editorial content. Publishing such matter, which looks exactly like any other legitimate news page or electronic news content, becomes unethical as well as misguiding the reader or the viewer.

That’s the reason, as Wikipedia states, most publications won’t accept advertisements that look exactly like stories from the newspaper or magazine they are appearing in.  That is also the reason why Oxford, while referring to advertorial, states that “journalists are seen as corrupt by many readers.”

In short – advertorial is a corrupt concept.

It just cannot be a matter of pride, justification or even a defence that “we published news content or a whole news page with a tag – advertorial.” On the contrary, it is a public admission that the media organisation is involved in an illegitimate, unethical and corrupt practice.  

That’s why Mr Gupta’s statement of justifying news content with a tag of ‘advertorial’ (Mauvin Godinho’s birthday pages with news content) look contrary to his own statement: “As Editor, my stated position both within and outside the organisation has been that paid content cannot be disguised as news.”

Wasn’t the whole advertisement content of Mauvin Godinho’s birthday disguised as news? Does it become legitimate with an illegitimate word – advertorial? Do we have a right to misguide the reader (or viewer) by publishing ‘paid content’ in a news format in a newspaper or in a news bulletin on a TV channel? Definitely not.

Precisely this is the reason why the Press Council of India has finally defined what paid news is. It states:

“Paid News can be defined as any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print & Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.”

Even the Goa Editors’ Guild came out with a bold statement in this regard after this sting. It states:

The editorial space is entirely reader/viewer’s space. There is a clear-cut allocation of space for advertisements in newspapers and TV channels. With the publication or broadcast of ‘paid news’ the dividing lines between news and advertisement
are blurred, deceiving the reader/viewer.”

The advertisement has its own place in the media organisation, as the editorial content – news or articles – has its own. They should not trespass into each other’s property. Crossing over these defined borders amounts to cheating the reader or the viewer. This is where the paid news concept needs to be banned legally as well as ethically – both by the journalists as well as the reader/viewer.

The Mauvin Godinho case was not just with Herald. Many newspapers, including Marathi newspapers, did it. Herald published the news pages as 'advertorial' while many others did not even mention it. Quite a few journalists had then written agaisnt it. (Even my article, written in Konkani for Sunaparant, is available here).

The paid news became a national issue after 2009 election, especially in Maharashtra. But in Goa, we witnessed it in a rampant manner in 2007 Assembly election. Barring two or three, most of the English and Marathi newspapers from Goa were involved in publishing the paid news. The reader was completely taken for a ride.

I had a privilege to flatly refuse the offer of front page advertisements with a condition to publish paid news, when I was the editor of Sunaparant. When I remained adamant, the party agreed to publish the advertisements, without any condition of paid news. Reason? They wanted advertisements, but were simply trying to take advantage of our greedy nature.

In a recently held municipal elections, one group came with a double offer to telecast one interview of a reputed politician, but without a permanent tag on the screen – Sponsored. We refused and lost the illegitimate revenue, without any regrets.

But there is another side to the coin. Advertisement is the only revenue the media organisation can earn to run the organisation. No media organisation or journalist can survive without it. The advertisements now come in different forms. They take over the whole front page, pushing the news inside. They come in the form of news page, though with a different font and type size to make the reader ‘feel’ that it is not part of the news page. Even in television, it is technically difficult to audio-visually differentiate between a genuine feature and paid feature, except the tag ‘sponsored’.

The Press Council of India thus needs to study the whole scenario thoroughly and come out with guidelines in this regard. However, the paid ‘news’ phenomenon has to be stopped immediately – with or without the so called justified tag – advertorial. If not, tomorrow some other journalist would publish a whole news page with a tag – Paid News!!!

Blogger's Profile

Sandesh Prabhudesai

Sandesh Prabhudesai is a journalist, presently the Editor of goanews.com, Goa's oldest exclusive news website since 1996. He has earlier worked as the Editor-in-Chief of HCN and Prudent, Goa's TV channels and Editor of Sunaparant, besides working as a reporter for Goan and national dailies & weeklies in English and Marathi since 1987. He also reports for the BBC. He is also actively involved in literary and cultural activities.

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