Spotting advertorials and other Sponsored Content isn’t always easy- but it’s always worth the time to look
by Rick Thompson/January 3, 2022
FLINT- They’re difficult to spot, those ads masquerading as actual journalism.
They’re sometimes referred to by the term ‘advertorial’, a combination of the words ‘advertising’ and ‘editorial.’ They appear to be just a regular piece of balanced journalism when in fact they’re not created by journalists- they’re created by public relations specialists. The term ‘Sponsored Content’ usually appears somewhere near the title, the by-line or at the extreme bottom of an advertorial piece. And they’re becoming more and more popular in the cannabis industry.
WHERE ARE THEY FOUND
Advertorials are everywhere. “Moody on the Market” is a dot-com serving southwestern Michigan. Their January 1, 2022 advertorial is titled, “Sunset Coast Provisions in Cassopolis Can Help Educate You on the Differences Between CBD and THC” and indeed, the ad space does include a breakdown of properties concerning CBD vs THC. The term ‘Sponsored Content’ appears between the title and the first paragraph, but is featured in a grey text color, which does not stand out clearly like the solid black of the advertorial’s content.
But there’s a problem with this ad copy. The section regarding CBD contains statements associating CBD with pain relief, reduced anxiety and help sleeping. The section regarding THC includes claims like “an increase in pain relief, sedation properties and appetite stimulation.” The claims of THC and CBD’s effects are so similar they would confuse any reader, something a proper journalistic editor would have identified before publishing a real article on the subject.
Then there’s this disclaimer statement included at the bottom of the advertorial: “Sunset Coast Provisions does not make or offer medical claims for their products.” Seems like a lie. They just wrote that THC and CBD have these medical benefits. A journalistic article would not contain these contradictions.
Hour Detroit Magazine and their affiliates are known to house advertorials. Their recent publication “The Faces of Cannabis Cultivation Care- Sasha Sokolovskyy and Krys Wdowiak” is contained within something called a “Special Advertising Section” and was published on January 1, 2022. Although it appears in your Google search results alongside other non-paid articles, this one is blatantly an advertisement as it contains a phone number and address for the company ‘Mary Jane’s Friends and Co.’ The advertorial includes more contradictions, including the phrase “best cultivation company out there.” But Mary Jane’s is NOT a cultivation company- they don’t have a cultivation license. They are a service provider to the cultivation industry, with trimming and defoliating services, but they do NOT grow plants, which is what a ‘cultivation company’ does. Advertorials are a way to rebrand your corporate identity, or to just be sneaky and deceptive about how you describe your service.
HOW TO TELL
The Sunset Coast Provisions advertorial is easy to spot as such, despite the article-style format. The end of the ‘article’ includes a contact form for the reader to fill out, ostensibly in order to get more information. Real articles don’t do that. Another tip off is the use of the company name in the article’s title; another indicator of advertorial is a history of ‘articles’ in the same news resource featuring the same format. Check out this advertorial published on December 1, from Moodys, again featuring Sunset Coast in the title of the ad.
Then there’s perspective. In the December 1 advertorial, Suncoast Provisions alternates between describing themselves as “they” and “we”. An ad would contain the “we” parts, but an article would describe Suncoast as “they”. No editor would let that skewed perspective slide by. Advertorials are not subject to journalistic review.
Hour Detroit put their January 1, 2022 advertorial series in a special section called ‘Faces of Detroit 2022 Special Edition’. Mike Berro of Qonkur Media seemingly paid for an advertorial calling himself “The Face of Cannabis Marketing”. If the title seems too flattering to be believed, it’s probably an advertorial. Click the link and LOOK at the writing- then decide for yourself if the content is journalistic in nature or just a public relations stunt.
WHAT IS THE DANGER
The danger in advertorials is the effort to trick someone into believing the ad’s content, based not on reader research and evaluation but solely upon the presentation, the article-style format in which purposeful advertising content is presented. We already have a healthy distrust of the written word, thanks to many transgressions by the media world, and advertorials serve as a reminder that anything can be bought- including integrity.
When advertorials contain content which is neither controversial nor flamboyant, it’s easy to see why people are duped into believing what they read. Seems like another in a series of writings by the newspaper staff.
In fact, that IS the danger of advertorials. One reads it, therefore one internalizes the content. When presented side-by-side or in a magazine filled with other actual journalistic content, advertorials are just as believable as the well-researched and properly cited works appearing in the print media. The trick is in the presentation. It’s a form of brainwashing the public into believing marketing slogans as factual statements.
For example, Sunset Coast Provisions advises people seeking THC products they “must… visit a state licensed provisioning center.” Provisioning centers are medical marijuana sales locations. Sunset sort of left out the entire Adult Use Retailer community. It’s fair to assume Sunset Coast is NOT licensed to sell adult-use cannabis products. Their narrowly-defined advice seems to favor their business model at the expense of truly advising the reader on the full range of available options.
The other danger in advertorials is a trend to cite these faux articles alongside REAL articles when presenting information to lawmakers, clients, municipal leaders and in resumes or pitch decks. Citing one’s own words as a proof of one’s credibility is a sucker’s game, but it’s hard to tell the suckers from those with real accomplishments. In all things, do your diligence. Follow the link to the original work. Look at what is being cited. Read with a skeptical intent.
Always, be careful what you feed your head.
WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
Sponsored content is a trend that’s here to stay. Media companies are hurting for revenue, the cannabis industry has revenue and that’s a sure sign the relationship between the two will grow stronger. There’s nothing wrong with sponsored content pieces- as long as you know you’re reading a non-journalistic bit of script. And, as always, don’t trust the headline- read the content!