Hidden ads help newspapers survive

How hidden ads are keeping Atlantic Canadian newspapers afloat.

By Heather Jordan Ross

WARNING: this article is trying to sell you something  
By Heather Jordan Ross

The Great Canadian Roadshow advertorial featured in the Chronicle Herald on September 24, 2011. The Herald marks this as an advertising feature, while the byline matches the Herald’s formatting. (Photo: Heather Jordan Ross)

The article begins with a call for readers to search their homes for antiques, collectibles, gold and silver: “…you may be sitting on a small fortune and not even know it!”

The headline boldly announces: “THE ROADSHOW HAS ARRIVED IN COLDBROOK!” Above the headline, a thin banner reads “BREAKING NEWS: Gold is at a record high!”

The article has two fundamental flaws. First, it has more capital letters and exclamation marks than your daughter’s text messages. Second, it isn’t an article at all.

It’s an advertorial, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an advertisement that imitates editorial format.” For community and daily newspapers across Atlantic Canada, this hybrid is a reality–and for some a necessity.

The roadshow article “by: Michael Ross” has shown up in at least four newspapers across the Maritimes. Like a chameleon, its font changes to blend into each newspaper in which it’s printed.

In each paper, a pull quote emphasizes a participant’s success. “’I’m so happy,’ Linda explains, ‘I never would have thought my old tin of coins was worth so much! I can finally afford to renovate my kitchen!’”

In a selection of eight newspapers from across Atlantic Canada, every paper used some form of advertorial, whether they were independent weeklies or Transcontinental and Brunswick Media dailies.

Nick Russell, a retired University of Regina journalism professor and author of Morals and the Media, says the average reader has learned “since we were on our mother’s knee” that editorial writing and advertisements shouldn’t be combined.

“Why should advertisers not be allowed to disguise their message in this way?” he says in his book. “Their reason for doing it is the very reason to refuse it. Advertisers want the audience to believe their material is not merely the extravagant claim of product promoters, but that it is true.”

Russell says advertorials have been in existence since the beginning of newspapers. “Very early on there were announcements from people promoting products that were clearly designed to look like news.”

Stewart Gillies of the British Library in London, England, says the first advertorial came shortly after the first newspaper. The earliest-surviving English paper was a single sheet printed on both sides in Amsterdam on Dec. 2, 1620. Nathaniel Bourne, its printer, is responsible for the first advertisement found in news.

The first advertorial came from Bourne’s partner, novelist Nathaniel Butter. On Sept. 16, 1624, Butter advertised in the newspaper his own map illustrating the siege of Breda, “wherein you may with the eye behold the siege, in a manner, as lively as if you were an eye witnesse.” Librarian Gillies says this was advertorial content.

In fact, newspapers started out as big advertorials–many newspapers began as political propaganda. Balance, objectivity, and ethics came later. A copy of the British Colonist from 1888, a paper based in British Columbia, has advertorials on its front page.

As for their presence in Atlantic Canada, in 1922 Milburn’s Heart and Nerve Pills placed an advertisement in the Halifax Herald titled “Halifax Explosion Wrecked Her Nerves.” It looked like an article, but “Advertisement” was written in brackets above the headline.

In Morals and the Media, Russell cites a chair of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, who in the 1990s called advertorials a “recent regrettable trend” in Canada. Today advertorials can be found from P.E.I.’s West Prince Graphic to the national Globe and Mail.

Find out more:

Morals and the Media on Google Books

CAJ – Policy Paper on Editorial Independence

Newspapers Atlantic

Different shapes and sizes

In his book, Russell lists three types of advertorial: the boilerplate, the traditional advertorial, and the brass cheque.

A boilerplate is a press release taken verbatim. It’s the most innocent form of advertorial, but Russell warns it still has negative effects. As long as a reader is getting one-sided information, they are being deceived.

A traditional advertorial is written by the company offering the product or service, like Michael Ross and his roadshow, and is handled only by the hands of the advertising department before heading to print.

An advertorial becomes a brass cheque when the actual newspaper’s department becomes involved. Advertisers contact the advertising department with what the client has in mind, and a writer gets to work.

In Atlantic Canada, the brass cheque advertorial appears to be the most common, and the least distinguishable from editorial content. These advertorials are written within the newspaper.

High-budget newspapers, like the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, can afford a “special features” staff, people specifically paid to write advertorial content. Those with a healthy budget, like the Daily Gleaner in Fredericton, often hire freelancers to write advertorial content so journalists can go undisturbed. For smaller papers, like the Casket in Antigonish, writing advertorials is a side job doled out to an unlucky reporter.

Casket editor Brain Lazurri says his staff often end up picking straws for who has to write next. Lazurri said he doesn’t like himself or his staff writing advertorials. But he’s never turned one down, either. That’s because Lazurri, like many other newspaper editors in Atlantic Canada, believes advertorials provide too much income to turn them down. “No one wants to write them, but they’re a fact of life.”

Vernon Oickle of the Lunenburg Press Bulletin agrees. “It’s a matter of survival. The economy is bad. You do what you can to make ends meet. It’s too cut and dried to say ‘avoid advertorials.’”

He says future employees unwilling to write advertorials will likely have a hard time finding work. “If an applying student came and I asked ‘If I assigned you an advertorial, would you do it?’ and they said no, I would thank them for applying,” he says.

The CAJ (Canadian Association of Journalists) says advertorials can be used as long as they are marked as ads. Its website also advises advertorials be handled only by the advertising department.

[pullquote]“A certain amount of people don’t make that distinction (between advertorials and real news). But then again there are a certain percentage of people that can’t tell the difference between National Enquirer and National Post…”
– Dan Leger, Chronicle Herald Director of News Content
[/pullquote]

Mike Kierstead is the executive director of Newspapers Atlantic, an initiative by the non-profit Atlantic Community Newspaper Association. Kierstead says journalists should be able to write advertorials in smaller communities. “The newspaper is a business and community service. And in a lot of respects, the editorial people should care about revenue generation as well as the advertising people.”

Paul MacNeill, owner of Island Press Limited in P.E.I.,  thinks it’s important to keep a connection between advertising and editorial staff, but for a different reason.

“It’s fine for the CAJ to sit in their ivory tower and make announcements that run completely contrary to how you generate news,” says MacNeill, who is also publisher of the Eastern Graphic, the West Prince Graphic, and Islander Farmer. “Advertising people (are) out talking to people reporters would never usually talk to… We encourage advertisers to pitch us news. They pitch us good news stories, and sometimes they pitch us fluff, but we can disregard the fluff. I think it’s a much better system, because if you put up walls in anything, you’ve minimized communication.”

The CAJ guidelines include technical details about advertorial use. They say all advertorials should be well clarified.

“Print advertorials should be clearly labeled as advertising copy, horizontally, at the top of the page, in a point size that’s significantly larger than the body of the text, in a colour that contrasts with the background colour of the page.”

This much description may seem unnecessary, until you start looking at the advertorials published in the region.

Clarification means different things

In the Chronicle Herald, the Great Canadian Roadshow is marked as an advertising feature. The font is about size six, much smaller than the CAJ’s specifications. STAFF WRITER appears beneath Michael Ross’s name.

A fairly obvious Samuel & Co. feature, also found in the Chronicle Herald, showcasing pink headlines and a mauve banner, is also marked as an advertising feature. But the words “advertising feature” somehow made it into the darkest part of the fading mauve banner.

And these are the advertorials that are labeled.

“I don’t think the readers care that much,” says Lunenburg’s Oickle. “If there’s a story about a new place opening, it’s kind of news, right?”

A common word papers use instead of advertising is “special.” “Special feature writers” write “special supplements”, which are “special to” the paper in which they’re written.

Some editors say readers need to be given more credit. Both Oickle and Dan Leger, director of news content at the Chronicle Herald, say to mark each advertorial as advertising is to assume the reader is stupid.

Oickle uses the example of an eight-page insert called Retiring Right. “If we mark it as a supplement, and it says Retiring Right on each page, they’re going to know that it’s editorial copy.”

But Paul Schneidereit, past president of the CAJ and a Herald columnist, warns that reading an unmarked advertisement is detrimental to the reader and the paper. When a reader comes to his or her own realization that an article is advertising, they might decide to mistrust the rest of the newspaper’s content.

“It blurs lines in a way that is actually harmful to the newspaper itself,” Schneidereit said.

Leger isn’t worried. In the case of the Herald, he said, as long as advertorials are in a separate section, they’re clear to the reader. “You write a piece about granite tops, that’s not going to be confused with the Middle East.”

Schneidereit agrees keeping advertorials in separate sections is the right move, but knowing the difference between fluff and news isn’t enough.

“People think, if journalists are writing these puff pieces, what does that do for your credibility when you see a reporter from the same outlet then asking tough questions with the premier, or a business leader? You say, ‘Yeah, right.’”

Leger says some readers may not understand that advertorials aren’t news, but they are likely few.

“A certain amount of people don’t make that distinction. But then again there are a certain percentage of people that can’t tell the difference between National Enquirer and National Post… Our journalism stands on its own merits and our readers are very perceptive and understanding to what is editorial and what is a form of advertising.”

The weekly “Wheels” section in the Chronicle Herald on Oct. 6, 2011. “Wheels” is an advertorial section written by Herald special feature writers. (Photo: Heather Jordan Ross)

One of Leger’s examples of clearly distinguished news is the Chronicle Herald‘s Wheels section. Leger describes the section as a “discrete offering.” It’s a pullout section folded into the paper, “so it’s not mixed in with editorial content.”

This discrete section is called “Section F,” after the first five alphabetized sections of editorial content. It’s laid out with articles, an “inside” preview to the rest of the section, and an opinion piece, with a photo byline, called You Auto Know. In the October 6 issue, there is only one pure advertisement on the page, conveniently for the same car that the Auto Know guy calls “the best small Ford yet.”

Unlike Oickle’s Retiring Right insert, which was much smaller than the rest of the paper, the Herald reader’s hand glides seamlessly from organic news section to discrete offering.

Although Media and Morals author Russell stands against advertorials, he does have two essential rules newspapers should follow if they are used.

First, be clear to the reader. It can make all the difference between feeling informed and feeling duped. Russell gives the example of two advertorials he read. One gave a description on how to winterize your house, and was personally signed by a staff member of Home Hardware. Russell felt informed by someone who knew what they were doing. The other was an article on a new GPS. Halfway through the article, Russell realized he was only getting one side of the story and this left him skeptical and wanting alternatives.

His second rule: be in control. If a paper can’t afford to avoid advertorials, it should at least be master of them. In the end, the advertisement, no matter who it’s written by, is going into the newspaper, and will represent the newspaper’s work.

Advertorials have a long presence in newsprint. To many papers, their existence is necessary. But their delivery, in some cases, may need to change to serve both paper and reader.

Until then, see you at the roadshow.