A couple of days ago I promised a rant about the insidious effects of advertorials on good journalism, so here it is.
There are really two forms of advertorial. In most cases, an "editorial" mention is promised to accompany an advertising booking. This can be done reasonably, if the journalist writing the article is free to include non-advertisers' products and services as well (although it is still not ideal). For example, I recently wrote an article recommending certain restaurants in Sydney, in which three of the four I was required to mention had full page ads in the same publication. This kind of advertorial is usually fairly obvious to the reader, who can easily see the ad near the editorial and infer a link between the two. I don't believe it is harmful, because it is simply a recommendation; I wasn't writing an exposé on health inspections, for example, or pretending that the list was comprehensive.
A more insidious form of "advertorial" is when journalists cannot write anything in editorial that may have a negative reflection on an advertiser. Here's an example: when I was employed on a parenting magazine, I wrote an article on the pros and cons of the use of disinfectants in the home. As part of this story, I related a true personal anecdote about a television advertisement for an unnamed cleaning product. When the camera "zoomed in" on scary-looking green germs on a pristine white surface, the friend with whom I was watching burst out laughing. She was a microbiologist, and immediately recognised that the supposedly scary "germs" were just yeast, a substance which we all have in our gut nearly all of the time.
When the article including this anecdote was printed, a major advertiser threatened to withdraw advertising from all of the company's publications. I was forced to apologise in person to the client, who claimed that, although I hadn't mentioned their product specifically, it was obvious that it was their ad to which I referred, since I had correctly identified that the "germs" were yeast! As well as grovelling to the advertiser, I was made to write a short news item in the next issue of the magazine specifically promoting their product. (As there was nothing inherently wrong with the product itself, but only the advertising for it, I felt able to do this without compromising my principles, thus keeping my job.)
Related to the use of advertorial pressure to compromise journalistic standards, as well as to compromise the finances and ethics of the publication in general, is the use of contra. For those not in the industry, "contra" is the name given to payment for advertising in kind, rather than in dollars. Used properly, contra can be great: for example, every time you get a free gift with your magazine you are probably getting contra -- free gifts boost copy sales, so a magazine will accept 100,000 tubes of lip gloss in exchange for a double-page spread of advertising. This works out well for publisher, advertiser and reader.
The problem I have with contra is when it doesn't feed back into the finances of the publication. At some publishing companies I have worked for, there were credible rumours among the staff that the CEO or senior executives were using contra ad bookings and editorial coverage to supplement their personal lifestyles -- for home renovations and holidays, for example. The problem with this is that there is no feedback into the economics of producing the magazine (I'd bet my bottom dollar that the execs didn't take a pay cut to make up for the freebies they were receiving). Less real advertising revenue means budget cuts for editorial expenses and no pay rises for journalists, while the execs and senior staff enjoy virtual, tax-free, pay rises. The reader receives no benefit at all.
As in my last post, having raised this issue I really have very few ideas about changing the industry practices. These days, as a freelance journalist, I can to some extent choose who I work for and what I write, but I actually have very little bargaining power if I want to continue to get regular work. (And that's another rant.) Enforcing ethics is hard, particularly in this economic climate.