Take a look at this:
If you mistook this advertorial for a news report, don’t beat yourself up for not noticing the tiny markers that identify this page as a marketing initiative. Dainik Jagran went to a fair amount of trouble to make sure readers make that very mistake. After all, the whole point of an advertorial is to fool the reader into thinking an advertisement is a legitimate news story.
Even to those of us who are accustomed to seeing “paid news”, 2021 saw an unprecedented blurring of the line between editorial and advertising – mostly because of the upcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The dates for the election are yet to be announced, but from the profusion of advertorials that have already appeared in newspapers and magazines, it’s clear that the momentum of informal campaigning has gathered strength.
The advertorial – ads that are camouflaged to match the editorial content on a page – is hardly a new feature. It’ll turn 50 years old in 2022. Credited with its invention is an American oil executive, Herb Schmertz, who snuck in an ad that looked like an article in the New York Times in 1972.
In India, advertorials are now an accepted part of a section of the media’s business model. There is no yearly record maintained of advertorials and neither has there been a study of how advertorials have evolved to their current form, in which they’re designed to confuse the reader rather than “”.
The ethics of carrying advertisements that are formatted and designed to closely resemble articles are no longer debated because mainstream media runs on advertising revenue. Journalists working in some of these organisations are often expected to write and even lend their bylines to advertorials that are produced by marketing departments.
Communication strategy consultant Karthik Srinivasan said that most magazines and newspapers claim to have a separate team to write marketing content. However, this is difficult to verify, he said, and there are anecdotal references to reporters and journalists working on the news desk being asked to write content for marketing and advertising departments.
“This practice is quite common across multiple platforms,” said Srinivasan. “It questions the ethics behind it because the same person who's supposed to report news in an unbiased way is also paid to write in a very, very biased way.”
Focus on ads
While government commercials are central to the economic model of most traditional and mainstream media, there are some rules to which these ads must adhere. "Advertisements must be easily identifiable from news information presented in a newspaper," says the Press Council of India in its guidelines for journalistic conduct.
Yet India Today, among the , repeatedly published advertorials that were disguised to look just like news stories, with no visible disclaimers. According to the Press Council of India's norms for journalistic conduct, "advertisements must be clearly distinguishable from news content carried in a newspaper."
Can you spot the label that clearly distinguishes this advertorial from news content? (Hint: look at the top right corner.)
This was part of a 24-page ad, promoting Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister “Yogi” Adityanath, published in the August 2, 2021 edition of India Today. In addition to the "Focus" at the top of the first page, there is an umbrella disclaimer on the Contents page to indicate this section is an advertorial. One of the advertorial pages is labelled an "Impact Feature", which in India Today’s lexicon, appears to be synonymous with “advertisement”.
In the edition dated July 5, 2021, the magazine published a six-page advertisement that read, "Yogi in mission mode to preserve lives and livelihood." In one corner were the words, "Focus, Uttar Pradesh", which sounds like the magazine was berating UP, but “Focus” is actually India Today’s tag for advertorials. Not that India Today offers this explanation anywhere in the magazine. It’s up to the readers to figure it out for themselves.
This edition was the magazine's yearly "complete educational guidance" issue and another advertorial was labelled "Focus, Education". It was about the chairman of Roots Collegium in Hyderabad. There was also an "Impact Feature" about SRM Institute of Science and Technology, which is a private university in Chennai.
Camouflaging ads as articles
The advertorial that we showed you at the start of this article was in Dainik Jagran. It was published on September 6, 2021 – a day after the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (which represents over 40 farmer unions) held a mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar, in UP.
Several media outlets covered the event and you could easily have mistaken Dainik Jagran’s two full-page stories as regular coverage of the mahapanchayat. However, while Indian Express’s coverage farm leaders announcing their plan to campaign against the governing party in the state, Dainik Jagran detailed the UP government's accomplishments and featured a smiling Adityanath. "Record purchase of wheat," "enhanced facilities leading to abundant yield," "e-mandi facilities at all ration and vegetable markets," and fulsome praise from farmers – if all this seems a little too effusive, it’s because this isn’t a news report, even though some of the stories have bylines of Dainik Jagran’s reporters.
Zoom in to the bottom of the page and you’ll see “Media Marketing Initiative”. How’s that for transparency?
You can read our full report on Dainik Jagran’s advertorial coverage of the mahapanchayat .
Papering over facts
Also on the UP government’s bandwagon was Economic Times, which had advertorials how the state’s economy is flourishing while it takes the industrial route to higher growth. The advertorials would have you know that expressways are speeding up growth, the food processing industry is “all juiced up”, and UP is the top choice for investors now.
Yet according to the State Planning Institute (Economics and Statistics Division), UP’s Gross State Domestic Product is by 5.9 percent in 2020-2021, due to the negative impact of Covid-19 on the state's economy. Also, the state's GDP has grown at a rate of less than five percent in the last four and a half years, under Adityanath’s stewardship.
However, none of this came across to the readers of Economic Times who were treated to four pages about UP’s economy, complete with “reports” that had bylines of Economic Times’s reporters (the others were attributed to "Team ET").
There was neither any disclaimer nor clear marker to indicate this was an advertorial. The only indicator was the font, which was slightly different from the font used on the editorial pages.
Srinivasan pointed out the contrast between how most Indian media camouflages advertorials and how foreign media distinguishes advertorials from editorial matter.
“A political ad or even a brand ad in something like a New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal...starts with specifying that ‘this is a paid advertisement’ and then ends with ‘this has been paid for by so and so person, team or brand’. Everything is clearly called out,” he said.
In November, the of the Times of India and Hindustan Times ran two full pages of what appeared to be news articles on the UP government's proposal to develop expressways.
At the bottom of the advertorial, the Hindustan Times had a line that said these pages were a “Hindustan Times media marketing project”. The Times of India referred to it as a “consumer connect initiative”. The articles on these pages had no bylines, but appeared to be news stories on the numerous projects started by Adityanath’s government.
State of advertorials
“UP government ads were extremely prevalent almost every other day,” said Srinivasan, who has been keeping track of advertorials since August 2020. “I thought it was a run up to the 2022 UP election. But they started advertising mid-2020 onwards, in the peak of the pandemic. So they're planning well in advance in terms of the 2022 election with or without a pandemic.”
According to Srinivasan, the most advertorials have been published by UP, followed by the Uttarakhand administration after the new chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami was appointed in July 2021.
The Uttarakhand government advertised aggressively in Hindi and English language publications such as Indian Express, Times of India, India Today, Forbes and Outlook India. Following UP and Uttarakhand, Haryana and Punjab (after the election of the new chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi) were the next big spenders on advertorials, said Srinivasan.
Other states such as Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have also actively advertised as part of image-building exercises.
In June, the self-regulatory Press Council of India to a number of newspapers and magazines for the advertorials they’d published. The Times of India, Dainik Jagran, and Outlook India were all fined for printing advertisements "under the garb of news" and being in breach of journalistic ethics.
This does not appear to have had much of an impact as a deterrent.
Technically, advertorials are ads and consequently, should come under the regulations of the Advertising Standards Council of India. Manisha Kapoor, secretary general of ASCI, told Newslaundry that terms like “focus” or “initiative” do not necessarily establish an advertorial. She said ads must be clearly distinguishable from content. Otherwise, they may violate chapter 1.4 of the ASCI code, which says, “advertisements shall neither distort facts nor mislead the consumer by means of implications or omissions. Advertisements shall not contain statements or visual presentation which directly or by implication or by omission or by ambiguity or by exaggeration are likely to mislead the consumer about the product advertised or the advertiser or about any other product or advertiser."
However, the ASCI is an industry initiative and doesn’t have any legal authority.
“They only look at regulating commercial communication, which seeks money in return for goods or services. Therefore, they don't include complaints directed against political and government advertisements,” said Ranjana Adhikari, partner at the multi-speciality law firm IndusLaw, which specialises in technology, media, entertainment, gaming and intellectual property.
For political advertorials, one option is to file a complaint at the Election Commission website’s National Grievance Services portal. “One can file a complaint under the model code of conduct and choose the Media and Advertising category advertising,” Adhikari said. In case there are no due elections, a complaint can be filed under the all-encompassing head of “Others”.
Information vs misinformation
In 2021, we’ve seen unprecedented lows with sections of the print media working to benefit the political parties that were their paymasters, rather than the readers.
At a time when misinformation is everywhere and sophisticated tools like deepfakes are becoming increasingly accessible, the role of the media is critically important. It falls upon the media to disseminate reliable, factual information. When news media peddles paid content, like advertorials, it deliberately spreads misinformation, which is the opposite of what is expected from the media as the fourth pillar of democracy.
It can’t be a coincidence that in the past decade, while newspapers and magazines have churned out sophisticated advertorials to earn their keep, the public trust in mainstream media has steadily crumbled. A discerning reader may be able to find the thin line that distinguishes a cleverly-designed advertorial from genuine news, but the fact that a publication chooses to carry such content damages the relationship of trust between news media and its audience.
As American humourist and novelist Mark Twain once put it, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper you're misinformed.”
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