Branded Content: Does It Cross The Line Of Ethics?

The topic of ethics when it comes to anything is interesting because it is always based on what is right or wrong. The big question is who determines whether something is right or wrong? Ethical questions could pertain to newspaper articles, the lyrics of a song, scripture in a bible, or even the content of a paid advertisement.

I often face the topic of ethics in my line of work as a journalist. It is a balancing act on whether to put something into an article. For example, do I name a police officer who was charged with domestic violence? Do I write something into a story that the source told me was off the record after saying it? Or better yet, do I allow a political candidate to dictate a story that bashes his or her opponent, just weeks before an election?  A move like the latter could influence an election, and as a reporter, that is not my job. It also crosses a journalistic line of ethics because reporters are not supposed to show bias in any fashion in their articles – that is the job of an editor or ombudsman.

But when it comes to branded content, I do not think the line of ethics is crossed.

According to the article, “What is branded content and is it ethical,” an article written by Ulrike Gretzel in 2018, branded content is “Paid content that is created and delivered outside of traditional advertising means, using formats familiar to consumers, with the intent of promoting a brand – either implicitly or explicitly – through the means of storytelling.”

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about social media influencers that are paid by companies and organizations to promote businesses and products. The influencers make the products look cool, which could result in a bump in sales for the companies paying the social media influencers. This method is not that new, though, especially when you think about television shows in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, where the actors and actresses used certain products to make them look cool. You can even see this in movies, where a product like Pepsi provides funding for the movie for placement of their products throughout the motion picture.

When it comes to radio and branded content, the self-proclaimed king of all media, Howard Stern, has been doing live advertisements during his show for years. Sometimes Stern will talk about a product like the Squatty Potty and say he has one at every toilet in his home, or commercials where Stern will say he gave his wife a gold-dipped rose from Steven Singer’s Jewelers. By giving off the vibe that he uses the products, the companies pull large profits each time Stern promotes the goods or services.

In the digital realm, advertisers and political campaigns have been known to create pages that have the appearance of being a news article, when in fact, the pages are nothing more than a promotion for a product. These pages can be misleading and suck a person into believing what they are reading. Again, advertisers have been doing this for years, so there really is nothing unethical about the practice.

Jamie Indigo wrote an article for Search Engine Journal called, “What is Ethical SEO,” in 2019, and in the article, she brought up an ethical question from that year. In 2019, the tax software giant Turbo Tax altered search results in Google by indexing a page that allowed low-income users to file their taxes to the IRS for free. When people looked for the free edition of Turbo Tax, it led people to a page where they had to pay $60-$120 to file their federal taxes – it was not free. This played out more like, as Indigo said, “a bait and switch.”

Though unethical and not right to some, you must go back to business practices of year’s past, when car dealerships would post cars in newspapers to grab the attention of potential buyers, only to sell them a different car when they arrived on the lot. #baitandswitch

“The practice of using design and conversion pathing to coerce users to do something they didn’t want to do is called dark patterning,” Indigo said. “Only 3% filed using the free product – even though 70% of Turbo Tax’s users are eligible for free filing.”

Ultimately, these practices – as petty as they may seem to some – are what businesses exercise to get more sales and to turn a profit. There is nothing illegal about these practices. Now if a political campaign creates a page that incites a riot in some way or fashion, it could skirt the issue of being illegal, but it would have to be proven in court.

As far as tobacco and firearms companies, and hate groups, I still have a difficult time muting theme from creating branded content.

The KKK is a prime example of an organization that creates content to attract new members and to practice activism, but unless they cause physical harm to a person or group of people, the first amendment gives them the right to say what they want. What the organization can’t do is start a riot or harm other individuals.

The same goes for tobacco and firearms companies. While the products Smith and Wesson and Marlboro have the ability to cause harm to individuals, it is not the company that is doing the harm—it’s the individual. Whether or not an individual wants to buy into the branded content these companies create, is up to them.

What needs to really happen is people need to get educated and understand that not everything they read on the internet is real. Stony Brook University has a program associated with the School of Journalism called News Literacy. The semester-long course, which was promoted to all students at the university, focused on how to decipher what is real and what is not when it comes to news. I remember one video showing a morning news show during the Christmas holidays, and in the bit, a woman was highlighting several products that she said were going to be the best presents of the season. As I watched the video, I did not recall ever seeing these products in the stores. The piece ended up being a paid advertisement by the manufacturer of the products. Though it was misleading, there was nothing unethical about the bit. Again, the issue comes down to whether people can figure out what is real and what is not.

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