With all this advertising framed as “real articles,” maybe the time has come to we govern these practices with real laws.
Here’s a scenario:
You read an article online talking about a revolutionary alarm clock that promises that it will help you sleep, monitor your REM time, stop snoring, fix sleep apnea, and create efficiencies in your sleeping habits. Sounds awesome, right? But of course there is no such thing. Therefore it's a lie and it's bound by certain legal parameters that make it illegal for you to market fraudulent information. This protects you, the consumer. It also protects (and holds harmless) many products that cover themselves head-to-toe with legalese. Nevertheless, at its core it was still a lie.
I'm a (self-proclaimed) marketing subject-matter expert with the bulk of my professional experience in the "inbound"marketing spectrum. I have pretty solid working knowledge understanding of the mediums, channels, tactics, and various strategies required to maximize results. The type of "branded articles" we’re talking about here is often referred to as "native advertising." Fundamentally, I don't have a problem with this style of content and use it frequently in my marketing initiatives. Properly deployed it looks foundationally like the following:
Interesting Title About a Like-Minded Topic
Notification: [the following article is an advertisement]
- Set up the problem, or define the situation.
- Talk about the various aspects of the situation — the educational “meat,” one might say.
- Answer the problem, or justify the situation in a light that is even further to the reader's benefit — here's often where you might plug a brand, product, or education to support your point.
- Summarize, and in some cases, apply transparency such as "while there are many types and styles, we suggest you do your own research to get the best results."
- Advocate sharing the article to your network or forwarding to a friend.
Boom. It’s an ideal scenario where you've not only constructed original content, but you've further given your opinion on a brand and direction for best results. So what's wrong with that? Not all that much, actually. Some argue that placing the article into a pool of content that's not backed by a brand, product, or education could be subversive. But I disagree IF the content is formatted in a way that if you REMOVED the marketing language it could still stand on its own as an article.
Where the wheels have come off is when content, disguising itself as journalism, takes on the role of swaying opinion with lies.
"Well Justice that's called ‘propaganda,’ and it's been used for thousands of years."
I won’t debate that. The issue is that the medium, culture, and accessibility of this misinformation is specifically to manipulate a directive without any transparency. The even bigger problem is that these delivery vehicles are being created to look, act, and deliver to you in a fashion that feels both natural and trusted.
Let’s pretend for a minute that a man comes to your front door with a DHEL uniform on. He has a package and waves, indicating you need to sign for it. You open the door, he hits you in the head with a hammer, buries you in the back yard and begins to live (as you) in your home.
Seem farfetched? That model in a digital world is called "Identity Theft" and the DHEL wasn't a misspelling.
In the real world, we saw subversive tactics during this year’s presidential election. Many of us were floundering between two candidates that you're not quite comfortable with, and we were being pounded with articles titles, and memes, and friends we thought were normal. Suddenly you're debating demonic possession. When there it is the “brass ring” of lies jumping on your fight or flight mechanism:
All wrapped in a legitimate-looking wrapper of your favorite news website or blog — thereby providing the trust and security you've come to embrace in your decision-making process. This drives to the core of your psychological makeup as you unknowingly take the bait back to your home. In many cases, as with the marketing techniques that were used in the election, you may still not truly understand that the core of your passion for one candidate or another may very well be predicated on a lie.