Advertorials: The risks
While advertorials are rarely subject to the same scrutiny as editorial content, it is not unknown for editorial complaints to follow from advertorials, including libel. Equally serious yet often forgotten, is the regulatory regime governing all advertising, the UK Code of Advertising (the CAP Code) overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority.
An advertorial is “an advertisement feature, announcement or promotion, the content of which is controlled by the marketer, not the publisher, that is disseminated in exchange for a payment or other reciprocal arrangement”.
The Cap Code stipulates that “Marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications, for example by heading them “advertisement feature””.
Where an advert is found to be in breach of the Cap Code, the ASA will hold the publisher, marketer and agency equally responsible and will name all parties in any published ruling. While the ASA lacks the same sanctions against print publishers as it holds for broadcasters (who are required by their broadcast licenses to enforce ASA rulings), upheld complaints can still generate negative publicity and impact on reader confidence.
Recognising an advertorial
As money may not always change hands, the key differentiator is “control”. ave you, as the publisher, retained editorial control? Or does the supplier retain (or expect) copy approval?
The ASA gives the example of an expenses paid holiday offered to a journalist by a travel company in the hope of a favourable review. Where there is no agreement on what the journalist will write, this will generally not be an advertisement. If the copy is subject to the company’s approval, then it will be an advertorial and will need to be flagged to the reader as such.
In another scenario, an advertiser might pay for an advertisement and separately provide the paper with copy for use as the basis of an article. Here, technically, the payment is for the advert, so the question is again one of control. If the paper feels free to develop the additional content according to its own editorial agenda, the resulting copy will remain outside the scope of the Cap Code. If the company retains copy approval or if the paper feels it cannot amend the copy, it will be an advertorial.
If it is an advertisement, then other provisions of the Cap Code kick in, requiring the advertisement to be legal, decent, honest and truthful and not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
Again, the publisher can come under fire if an advert is found to be in breach of these wider principles. In March this year the Guardian came under scrutiny when an advertorial for Jaguar Land Rover Ltd was held to have encouraged unsafe driving practices.
There are of course alternatives to the “advertisement feature” label suggested by the Cap Code. However the ASA has warned that publishers should be wary of terms such as “sponsorship” and “in association with”. This was specifically addressed in a 2015 ruling concerning an advertorial for Michelin Tyres which appeared on www.telegraph.co.uk, where the ASA ruled that terms such as “sponsored” and “in association with” did not make the commercial nature of the content sufficiently clear. In another ruling, “Thanks to [brand] for making this possible” was also held to be insufficient.
For social media purposes “#ad” may be sufficient, provided it appears prominently enough.
So when finalising content from a marketer, consider the following questions:
1. Has the newspaper received payment or another benefit for the content?
2. Does the content supplier expect editorial control?
If the answer is yes to either of these questions, take steps to ensure the article is clearly identifiable to the reader as an advertorial.