First it was sponsored Google search results, now it is ‘sponsored columns’ in newspapers that are exercising the non-broadcast advertising watchdog. But does this mean that all third party-supplied expert comment on topics of interest to readers (even guest articles on marketinglaw.co.uk) has to be labelled ‘Advertisement’?
Who: French Duncan Chartered Accountants and Newsquest (Herald and Times) Limited
Where: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: September 2004
The ASA adjudicated on a complaint in respect of a feature in a regional newspaper that was headed "Professional brief." The complaint was that since the brief had been published in return for a payment by the accountants who had written it, the piece should have been clearly labelled as an advertisement.
In its response, publisher Newsquest admitted that the feature was a "sponsored column." They insisted, however, that these were not advertisement features, but columns allowing companies to contribute editorial content on newsworthy subjects on which they were experts.
Sponsored column still editorial?
What was more, the sponsored columns were not allowed to refer to the writer's firm's own services, there was no guarantee as to when or where the columns would appear in the newspaper and the publishers maintained that they retained editorial control over them, reserving the right to reject or edit material that was submitted. The column also made it clear in the bye-line that although the newspaper endorsed the column, the opinions in it were those of the author.
Change of tack on editorial control
It could not have helped the newspaper and their sponsored column supplier that according to the ASA report, in a previous letter on the topic from the newspaper to the complainant direct, the newspaper had taken a slightly different line on editorial control.
Newsquest apparently said on this occasion that they had no control over the content other than in ensuring compliance with regulations and statutes, and in light of this and all other circumstances, the ASA upheld the complaint and ordered the newspaper to make it clear in future that their "sponsored columns" were advertisement features.
Payment for appearance key
The key point for the ASA was that the "sponsored columns" were published in exchange for payment and their content was provided by the "marketers" as the ASA report describes the accountants, rather than the publishers.
Why this matters:
On the face of it, the averagely streetwise reader might say this would seem a somewhat harsh decision. The columns in question are not allowed to make references to the services of the provider. By all accounts, they contain informative and topical content and one assumes that they were clearly bye-lined as written by the firm of accountants in question.
Marketinglaw is aware of at least one legal publication that consists largely of articles on legal issues clearly written by named lawyers from identified firms, all of whom have in fact paid not insubstantial sums for the privilege of having their piece appear. The publication's readers will be well aware that the contributors are not providing their copy for entirely altruistic purposes and will probably be unconcerned as to whether money has changed hands as part of the deal, so long as the piece is informative and topical.
According to this adjudication, each and every one of the articles in this legal journal should be labelled clearly "Advertisement" or "Advertisement feature," yet it is unclear as to whether this would prevent any material deception.
Having said this, the fact that in the French Duncan/Newsquest case the publisher changed tack on the question of editorial control clearly told against it, and clearly wherever money or other consideration is changing hands for the appearance of material from a commercial source, publishers will need to exercise particular vigilance to ensure transparency.