Trust For Sale! Media, Money and the Fragility of Brand

BlogHer Original Post
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 09:  President and Chief Executive Officer of Forbes and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine, Steve Forbes speaks at the Forbes Travel Guide's 2010 five star awards at the Forbes Building on November 9, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images)

Imagine you go to your doctor for an ailment, and her office gives you a prescription for treatment. Even if you don't see the doctor, you trust that your doctor's office is giving you good advice, or at least advice vetted by the doctor.

What if you find out that the treatment you received was not, in fact, recommended by the doctor, but rather provided by a pharmaceutical company that purchased access to your doctor's patients — purchased access to you, to speak to you directly without your doctor's input, but in your doctor's name. You didn't get what you wanted or needed, you got what the paying messenger wanted you to get.

Would you trust that doctor's office again? Would you trust your doctor if she ran her office like that?

And yet Forbes is looking to do something similar: Forbes has announced that it will be selling editorial space, in the form of blogs, to companies and organizations to post what they will.

The pitch is this: We'll sell you a blog, and your content will live alongside that of Forbes' journalists and bloggers. This isn't the "sponsored post" of yore; rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand.

"In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment," Mr. DVorkin said in an interview at an empty restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the historic headquarters of the 93-year-old magazine.

It's like he's proud of muddying the waters.

On GigaOm, Matthew Ingram points out that the line between editorial and advertising is always challenged:

The idea that advertisers might want to put their branded content as close as possible to traditional journalistic content is as old as publishing itself. The “advertorial” sections that appear in printed newspapers and magazines are driven by exactly that desire, and the fact that they try to mimic the actual journalistic content as closely as possible makes it obvious how much advertisers and marketers would like readers to confuse one for the other (at the newspaper I worked for, there were repeated disagreements over whether advertisers could use the exact same typeface as the editorial content or not).

It seems like the game has escalated. Setting aside the ethics of the policy Forbes is embracing, there's the question of whether this will even work. Is this a winning strategy? What about the Forbes brand?

Ventriloquist Branding

I wrote before that everyone has a brand, and that it's pretty easy for control of that brand's image to slip away. Look at BP.

Remember how Nike and Gatorade learned a hard lesson a few months ago when their brands risked tarnishing because of the very public Tiger Woods scandal? They had hitched their brands onto the Tiger Woods brand — in effect, hitched their reputations on Tiger's — and when the going was good, they loved it. But when the going went bad, they had problems. With their brands riding together, they did not have control over their own message. They ceded much of it to Tiger Woods, who was not just a spokesman but who brought with him his brand.

And when Tiger went down, they had to react quickly to protect their own brands. They faced brand damage for actions and events completely out of their control ... except for the fact that they contracted to hitch on Tiger's brand's coattails.

So what about Forbes?

Forbes is about money. Markets, investment, moguls, industries. As a serious publication, it's also about trust. There are publications whose editorial leanings you may agree with or disagree with, but in general you can at least trust that their editorial leanings are their own. At least that's what we're led to believe. There's a trust the reader places in the publications that way. The New York Times has their editorial perspectives on the world. The Wall Street Journal has their own editorial perspectives. These editorial perspectives differ, and each of us may disagree with either or both as we see fit, but we ostensibly can assume that these perspectives at least are not bought and paid for by a third party.

It's pretty obvious that Forbes has a brand, and that brand has value. But it seems they put the Forbes brand at risk by opening up their reputation to the actions of these companies buying access to their editorial space.

They're making the Forbes brand vulnerable to the actions of these paying players.

Trust the Ventriloquist Dummy?

There's also the question of whether this pay-for-play strategy, even if it runs without a hitch, will succeed in the long run.

As Felix Salmon writes:

If you put advertisers on the same distribution platform as your editors and writers, and if you say that there are no lines separating what’s editorial content and what’s advertising, then at that point you don’t need Dinesh D’Souza to destroy your editorial integrity: you’ve managed to do it all by yourself.

When we look at how news organizations are compromising their integrity in all sorts of areas, including using paying advertisers as "experts" in their stories and broadcasts, I'm struck by the feeling that in their chase for the dollar and easy story, they are undermining their appeal to their audiences.

The practice goes way beyond Los Angeles and a product or two. Be warned if you are watching a self-proclaimed consumer advocate on local TV news pitching cars, electronics, travel and much more. There's a good chance that your friendly small-screen expert has taken cash to sell, sell, sell.

Does knowing that the "news" you're viewing or reading may secretly be an advertisement make you want to watch more, read more?

Or does it invite you to turn to other sources for news and information?

On Lexblog, Kevin O'Keefe points out the risk: "Only 14% of people trust advertising." If the "news" you're consuming might in fact be advertising pretending to be news, how do you trust that? Is the answer for media companies to — excuse the expression — whore their own editorial virtue to advertisers to survive?

And advertisers need to wonder whether this will work for them either. After all, if an advertiser publishes something posing as editorial content, and nobody comes around to read it, does it end up promoting anything?

Laura Scott has been writing for BlogHer since 2006 on technology, the web and media. She blogs at rare pattern and PINGV. Follow her on Twitter @lauras.

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