Fooling the reader: How Indian papers and magazines disguise ads as news

India Today’s ‘Focus’ and ‘Impact’ features are a case in point.

ByTanishka Sodhi
Fooling the reader: How Indian papers and magazines disguise ads as news
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If it looks like a news report, reads like a news report and is bundled with several other news reports, it must be a news report. Right?

Wrong.

It could as easily be an advertisement, only you wouldn’t notice if you don’t pay close attention. And that is really the idea: the ad is packaged as a report so you wouldn’t realise that it is, well, an ad.

Ads disguised as news reports are called advertorials in the legacy media and native ads in digital media. In both, they have made the wall between advertising and editorial departments porous, raising serious ethical questions.

The problem with advertorials is not just that they are disguised as reports but that they often lack readily visible markers, leading the reader to believe they are news reports by journalists.

India Today, for example, regularly publishes advertorials that are disguised to look identical to its news reports, without prominent disclaimers. Instead of being labelled advertorial or ad, say, they are marked with unrelated words such as “Focus”, usually printed in tiny font in a corner of the page, even though “journalistic propriety demands”, as per the Press Council of India’s Norms for Journalistic Conduct, “that advertisements must be clearly distinguishable from news content carried in a newspaper”.

The weekly magazine’s August 2 edition ran a 24-page ad for Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. The only marker to tell it from a news report was the word “Focus” at the top of the first page and an umbrella disclaimer on the Contents page cautioning that the pages in the magazine titled “Impact Feature” or “Focus” were simply ads, which the magazine’s editorial staff weren’t involved in creating in any way.

While the font size and style of the disclaimers as well as the text of the advertorials vary a bit from the rest of the magazine, you would have to be a very discerning reader to realise it.

It is a routine practice for India Today. On July 5, the magazine ran another advertorial praising Adityanath, a six-pager titled “Yogi in mission mode to save lives and livelihood”. It was labelled, again in small font, “Focus, Uttar Pradesh”. This edition was the magazine’s annual “comprehensive educational guidance” issue and it was full of advertorials. There was an advertorial about the chairman of Roots Collegium, Hyderabad, tagged “Focus Education” and another about SRM Institute marked “Impact Feature”.

Similarly, the magazine carried a “Focus Olympics” on Bridgestone, the automobile parts manufacturer, in the form of an interview on on July 19, and an “Auto Focus” about Volvo Car on June 14.

“The ethics of this are completely grey,” said Karthik Srinivasan, a communication strategy consultant who studies advertorials that breach the line. “You are supposed to be upfront in the disclosure that this is paid for and isn’t editorial but that is a line most media publications are crossing now to hide that it’s a paid ad. Advertorials are intentionally made to blend with the editorial matter so they can gain from the trustworthiness of the editorial.”

Industry-wide affliction

The Press Council of India has pulled up newspapers and magazines for this practice, but has failed to curb it. In June, the self-regulatory body rapped the Times of India, Dainik Jagran, and Outlook for publishing ads “in the garb of news” in violation of journalistic conduct. The Press Council takes suo motu cognizance in such cases and sends a showcause notice to the editor. If the editor’s response isn’t satisfactory, the regulator can warn, admonish, or censure the publication or disapprove of its editor’s conduct.

Yet, leading papers and magazines have published reams of advertorials in recent months, paid for by state and central governments mainly seeking to allay public anger over their mishandling of the second Covid wave which devastated the country earlier this year. The Times of India, Hindu, Hindustan Times, New Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle, and Economic Times ran several advertorials for the Narendra Modi government that looked like news reports, with barely-there disclaimers.

The Times of India, the most circulated English daily in the country, is an advertorial pioneer. It now labels advertorials “Connect Consumer Initiatives” rather than “ads”, allowing lakhs of its readers to believe they are news reports. The paper and its sister publication Economic Times come bundled with supplements such as Bombay Times, Delhi Times, Chennai Times, ET Panache. They aren’t news pages but, given the advertorial marking is printed in small font by the masthead and not next to each “article”, you would be forgiven for mistaking them as such.

The Week brands advertorials “Focus” as well. The May 2 edition of the magazine ran advertorials on “entrepreneurs” and JK Tyre and Industries, the April 25 edition on some educational institutions, the February 28 issue on health and “respiratory wellness”, and the October 26 issue on Uttar Pradesh. These “disclaimers”, tiny as they are, look identical to the topic tags for articles and are placed in the same spot on the page.

Another weekly magazine, Open, published a four-page advertorial for the Uttar Pradesh government on January 11 that was labelled “Open Avenue”. Forbes India carried four pages of an Adityanath ad, resembling a news report, on August 11 called “Brand Connect”.

Business Today also regularly carries “Focus” and “An Impact Feature” ads, with the same warning as its sister magazine India Today on the index page: “These are no different from an advertisement and the magazine’s editorial staff isn’t involved in their creation in any way.”

The business magazine’s August 8 edition published what seems like an interview with the director general of the International Solar Alliance on page 9, but is actually an advertorial merely labelled ‘Focus Solar’; a “Focus Infra” feature on the India Infrastructure Finance Company on Page 25; and a “Focus Home Automation” feature on Panasonic Life Solutions India on page 35.

The March 21 edition, featuring the magazine’s annual India’s Best Banks survey, carried advertorials with just a “Focus” disclaimer on health, security, business, technology, logistics, human resources, Kerala and, of course, Uttar Pradesh.

Advertorials disguised as news reports for educational and medical establishments in particular, besides breaching journalistic conduct, risk harming public health and education.

Though there are no specific guidelines for advertorials, they are considered ads under the Advertising Standards Council of India’s definition. So, if an advertorial doesn’t adhere to the code of conduct for ads, the self-regulatory body can direct the advertiser to modify or rectify it. If they don’t comply, the council can ask the union ministry with jurisdiction over the advertiser company to take action. The council isn’t empowered to regulate government ads, only commercial ads.

Manisha Kapoor, the council’s general secretary, said publications that use such terms as “focus” or “initiative” for advertorials or do not mark them prominently may be violating the council’s code.

Such as code 1.4, which lays down that “advertisements shall neither distort facts nor mislead the consumer by means of implication of omission”. Or code 1.5 which states that “advertisements shall not be so framed as to abuse the trust of consumers or exploit their lack of experience or knowledge”.

“Both the advertiser and the media have an important role to ensure that these advertorials are not misleading in the manner they are presented to consumers,” Kapoor said. “On receipt of a complaint, ASCI could process such cases.”

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