In My Opinion: Scott Douglas: When is an advertorial not an advertorial? When it’s sponsored content

GOTTA love this change stuff, eh?

We’re no longer writers or story-tellers, we’re now content producers. We don’t crib, borrow or adapt ideas, we repurpose them. And my personal favourite? We no longer deal with advertorials – it’s now sponsored content on ‘native advertising’.

Say what? How this latest buzz phrase came about is beyond me, but native advertising is a term which is rattling around the digital-savvy side of the media and gathering quite a lot of breathless hype on the way.

Coming from a print media background, I found this hard to understand at first. I was weaned on newspapers when the ‘Chinese wall’ between advertising and editorial was impenetrable.

Back then, advertorials were usually a valiant but not always successful attempt to make unlikely products look like even more unlikely news stories. And there would be a great big strapline across the top or the bottom saying: “This is an advert”.

Funnily enough, a recurring advertorial from the 1980s and 90s that sticks in my memory was for a book to help buyers improve … memory skills. Oh, the sweet irony.

The ad was usually accompanied by a 1950s-style line drawing of a Brylcreemed man wearing a blackout eye mask along with a number of patently made up, glowing testimonials from people with only one name (“I now remember everyone I meet!” – John, Cambridge) or referred to only by their initials (“I can memorise 100s of phone numbers!” – SJ, Doncaster).

Now, though, the advertorial – or more accurately its 21st-century incarnation as native advertising – is being talked up as a possible financial saviour of news sites which have struggled after giving content away free online, while seeing print advertising pounds melt away to digital advertising pennies.

Managing to put aside my lingering prejudices over bad advertorials from pushy carpet discount stores and smarmy car sales outlets, I can actually see why this might work and may even be a good thing.

Brands and businesses want to feature on credible news sites in a way that will encourage visitors to actually read about them, rather than simply paying for banner ads to be ignored.

So, the theory goes, those brands and businesses will have to start being interesting, useful or entertaining by paying to deliver content which sits alongside relevant news or editorial while adding actual value.

From a PR point of view, this is potential winner for those agencies which are equipped to produce well-researched, news-focused, informative and non-salesy articles on behalf of clients. There could also be opportunities for entrepreneurial hacks prepared to try their hand at so-called ‘brand journalism’.

Meanwhile, I’m all for advances that will help support paid journalism, while readers could also benefit from easy access to genuinely useful content.

Needless to say, there are also some extremely grave concerns about the continual blurring of those once clear lines between editorial and advertising.

Purists out there will be relieved to hear that Google has now stepped in and promised heavy web-ranking penalties for those news sites which fail to make a clear distinction between editorial and paid-for content.

Google has been the catalyst and carrier of so much change in the media landscape, so it’s good to see the search giant doing its bit to help preserve the sanctity of editorial integrity.

And for the record, no payment was exchanged to place this article here.

Scott Douglas is a director of Holyrood PR. He is also the founder of Deadline News Agency and a former reporter with the Daily Record, The Journal and the Edinburgh Evening News.