After two weeks of traveling to New England for a vacation and to Montreal for the AEJMC, it is good to be home! AEJMC flew by!
I’d like to look at one of my favorite panels from the conference: the Ethics and Brand Content panel put on by the Advertising and Media Ethics divisions. Let me recap and add my thoughts, because the ethics of content marketing is something we need to consider as educators.
This panel included Ira Basen (CBC Radio) Michael Mirer (Wisoncin-Madison) and Karen Mallia (South Carolina) and was moderated by Kathleen Bartzen Culver (Wisconsin-Madison). They looked at content marketing, including the different types of content including brand publishing, branded content, native advertising, sponsored content, and brand journalism (the latter of which was a term the panel did not prefer). It was interesting to look at the ethics of content marketing from the perspective of both a journalist, Ira, and advertising, the other panelists. Ira focused on native advertising, which he defined as: “relevant to the consumer experience, which is not interruptive, and which looks and feels similar to its editorial environment”
Interestingly, Ira noted that research shows most consumers are unaware of what “sponsored content” means on sites like the New York Times – they don’t know that the news outlet didn’t write the content. For example, when you watch the news programming and a company sponsors the program, you don’t assume that the company also wrote the news piece on the program. This is a great point. The intent of sponsored content on online publications is just that – for you to not know that the news outlet didn’t write it. What happens when people find out?
One of the best examples was the article and infographic on the New York Times sponsored by Netflix to promote (a show I love) Orange is the New Black. Netflix paid a freelancer to research and write the piece, focusing on the need for female focused prison policies. You probably saw this floating around. Did you know Netflix sponsored it? I didn’t (despite the logo clearly printed at the top, I hadn’t even noticed it).
Let me make my second point and then I’ll try and tie this together.
Ira also stated that trust in brands is high, while trust in journalism is low (did not catch his source for this statistic. But I am going to take it at face value for this blog post). Ira acknowledged that, for journalism, many of those hits to their trust were self-inflicted. I take it that what he means is that journalists have made a number of public mistakes over a period of time that have resulted in distrust among the general public.
If it is true, why is it that trust in brands is so high right now (at least, compared to journalists)? And how might that change?
Let’s think about it. The purpose of content marketing is to create content for your audience. Continuously. As a brand becomes a media company, there is an imperative to continue to create more and more content.
And that opens up companies to the possibility of making the same mistakes as journalists have. Ok, not the same mistakes exactly. But you know what I mean. The more content you create the greater the chance you will say or do something that will be a mistake – a false or misleading claim, a sensationalist move to gain viewers, a gaffe, offensive or insensitive content, etc.
It is an interesting dilemma. You’ve got to create content. The more you exposure yourself, the more risk you are essentially taking. So as everyday companies strive to become media companies – creating and reporting their own news – will trust in brands decline?
Let me say that differently. Will content marketing, the tool many are counting on to build meaningful relationships and thus trust, result in the decline of trust in brands over the long term?
And how should we deal with this long-term possibility?
It may be that we are simply at a place where mediated relationships with brands are still relatively new and that is why trust remains high. We haven’t had time to grow cynical yet.
Or am I thinking about this all wrong? Perhaps there is something fundamentally different about journalism. After all, a journalist is supposed to be looking out for our best interest. While we acknowledge that a company seeks a profit and offers a specific service to us. Further still, journalism is an institution. We may look at it on the whole. But loss of trust in one brand, does not inevitably lead to loss in trust in another brand. In fact, a brand may benefit by loss of trust in its competitor.
Whatever the case may be, as educators there is a need to really think about what the ethics of branded content are so that our students thrive as ethical content creators.
Of course, I talk about ethics in my classes. But I haven’t looked at them through this specific lens – the comparison with journalism as media outlets and the issues journalism faces with public trust- and I thank Ira and the other panelists for prompting me to do so.
What do you think?
In sum, it was a fascinating panel that really got me thinking about this question. And this question was just the tip of the iceberg of what came out of a truly fascinating panel.
In closing, I got to attend a number of other great panels while at AEJMC and learned a ton from them! Unfortunately, there were more panels I wanted to attend than time to attend them. It is super busy now with classes 2 weeks away and the ICBO deadline fast approaching. But I hope to get another post up later this week or early next week looking at some of the other great takeaways from the conference, including the great people I met and more!
FYI: I’ve written a lot about content marketing on this blog. Here are my other posts on the subject.