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What's in an Ad? BuzzFeed, the Dish, and the Perils of Sponsored Content

Derek Thompson

On Thursday night, I moderated a boisterous debate between Andrew Sullivan and BuzzFeed's Ben Smith about journalism, how it makes money, and how it will make money in the future. Well, actually, those terms require some clarification. By "moderated" I mean refereed and by "discussion" I mean verbal slugfest. In a precious moment of calm, I think I compared my presence on the panel to a "para-glider entering a hurricane."

It was an awesome hurricane that I doubt anybody minded. Ben and Andrew were brilliant and articulate defenders of their respective journalism models, and they disagreed fiercely about the ethics of advertorials, making for a far more interesting discussion that the one I tucked into my coat so I could sip beer and enjoy fight night from the best seat in the house.

To appreciate the fight, let's review the history. Websites like BuzzFeed (and The Atlantic) are experimenting with a newish ad format that goes by many names, including native advertising, sponsored posts, sponsored content, and advertorials. These ads look like articles. Essentially, they are articles. They have their own URLs and everything. On homepages they are called out as ads with subtle distinctions, like a soft color background and an unobtrusive marker like "Sponsored" or "Featured Partner," as you can see from my BuzzFeed screenshot below.

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At BuzzFeed, I've learned, the business team (which is utterly distinct from the editorial side) acts like a digital "Mad Men" outfit by conceiving of and polishing up the ad, which winds up looking quite a lot like a BuzzFeed journalist's article. Thus, "10 Not Normal Phenomena That Actually Exist" is an Mini USA ad, and "21 Totally Inappropriate Moments in Mary-Kate and Ashley Movies" is an article.

To be perfectly clear: Making advertisements look more like articles is precisely the point of this new format. Digital ads mostly stink. Banners in squares and rectangles paint the strike zone of the webpage, practically begging readers to throw their attention down the middle and ignore everything else. So some media companies are experimenting with advertorials.

Andrew has many objections to this new format. His most powerful criticism of the BuzzFeed (and Atlantic) business model is that, if these advertorials are effectively indistinguishable from articles, "aren't we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?" This is a good and smart problem to identify (I consider myself a decently savvy consumer of Internet, and I've mistaken a BuzzFeed ad for an article). But it's really not a difficult problem to solve. Andrew acknowledged that he would be satisfied if BuzzFeed prominently printed ADVERTISEMENT next to the advertisement.

The Dish finds itself in the opposite situation -- since declaring independence from the Daily Beast, it has forgone advertising and, for now, relies exclusively on subscriptions, and has raised just shy of $500,000 in six weeks. That's just awesome.

But it's extraordinary in the most literal sense of the word. Andrew Sullivan is a superstar blogger, and The Dish is a superstar online magazine. But the vast majority of quality journalism has always, and probably will always, rely on advertising to be both high-quality and affordable to a massive audience. That's the genius of journalism's two-sided market. It lets journalism be good and cheap. It's fine for Andrew to say that he has found it abhorrent to be associated with advertising sold specifically to his site. It's his site, he can do as he pleases. But without advertising, how many of today's wonderful journalists and newspapers and magazines would vanish from the world? Without the largesse of Bloomberg and Reuters, probably most of them.

In retrospect, I wish both sides conceded one final point to the other. I wish Ben conceded that BuzzFeed advertorials obviously mimic BuzzFeed articles, and advertorials deal with a clear tension: The more clearly they say HEY YOU THIS IS A WEB ADVERTISEMENT the less likely people are to interact with them because people have been taught to hate Web advertisements. I wish Andrew had paused in his fiery attack on advertorials and BuzzFeed to acknowledge something simple: That advertising does a good thing in the world. It pays great journalists to find and tell the truth. It's a tradition worth preserving through both innovation and severe transparency.

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