Ad War: BuzzFeed, the Dish, and the Perils of Sponsored Content

On Thursday night, I moderated a boisterous debate between Andrew Sullivan and BuzzFeed's Ben Smith about making money in journalism. Actually, those terms require some clarification. By "moderated" I mean passively refereed and by "discussion" I mean relentless verbal slugfest. In a precious moment of calm, I think I compared my presence on the panel to a "para-glider entering a hurricane."*

To appreciate the fight, let's review the history. Websites like BuzzFeed (and The Atlantic) are experimenting with a newish ad format that goes by many names, including native advertising, sponsored posts, sponsored content, and advertorials. These ads look like articles. Essentially, they are articles. They have their own URLs and everything. On homepages they are called out as ads with subtle distinctions, like a soft color background and an unobtrusive marker like "Sponsored" or "Featured Partner," as you can see from my BuzzFeed screenshot below.

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At BuzzFeed, I've learned, the business team (which is utterly distinct from the editorial side) acts like a digital "Mad Men" outfit by conceiving of and polishing up the ad, which winds up looking quite a lot like a BuzzFeed journalist's article. Thus, "10 Not Normal Phenomena That Actually Exist" is an Mini USA ad, and "21 Totally Inappropriate Moments in Mary-Kate and Ashley Movies" is an article.

To be perfectly clear: Making advertisements look more like articles is precisely the point of this new format. Digital ads have rather obvious limitations. Banners in squares and rectangles paint the strike zone of the webpage, practically begging readers to throw their attention down the middle and ignore everything else. So some media companies are experimenting with advertisements that take the form of clickable, sharable web pages. It's a worthwhile experiment with clear risks.

When Andrew looks at advertorials, he mostly sees the risks. His most powerful criticism of the BuzzFeed (and Atlantic) business model is that, if these advertorials are effectively indistinguishable from articles, "aren't we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?" This is a good and smart problem to identify (I consider myself a decently savvy consumer of Internet, and I've mistaken a BuzzFeed ad for an article before). But it's really not a difficult problem to solve. Andrew probably spent 30 minutes lambasting the morals of native advertising, but he acknowledged that his concerns would be eliminated if BuzzFeed prominently printed the word ADVERTISEMENT next to the advertisement -- and perhaps darkened the background color.

The Dish finds itself in an opposite situation. Since declaring independence from the Daily Beast, it has forgone advertising and, for now, relies exclusively on subscriptions, and has raised just shy of $500,000 in six weeks. That's just awesome.

But it's extraordinary in the most literal sense of the word. Andrew Sullivan is a superstar blogger, and The Dish is a superstar online magazine. The vast majority of quality journalism has always relied, and probably will always rely, on advertising to be both high-quality and affordable to a massive audience. That's the genius of journalism's two-sided market. It allows reporting and analysis to be both good and cheap. It's fine for Andrew to say that he has found it abhorrent to be associated with advertising sold specifically to his site. It's his site. He can do as he pleases. But without advertising, how many of today's wonderful journalists and newspapers and magazines would vanish from the world? Without the largesse of Bloomberg and Reuters, probably most of them.

In retrospect, I wish both sides conceded one final point to the other. I wish Ben conceded that BuzzFeed advertorials are intimate mimics of BuzzFeed articles -- it's not unreasonable to be confused once or twice -- and it creates a tension with transparency. BuzzFeed is trying to make ads that are as charming and delightful as articles, but the more clearly they say WARNING THIS IS A WEB ADVERTISEMENT, the more likely people are to ignore their charming delights, because we have been taught to ignore all Web ads. I wish Andrew had paused in his fiery attack on advertorials and BuzzFeed to acknowledge something simple: Advertising does a good thing in the world. It pays great journalists to find and tell the truth. It's a tradition worth preserving through both experimentation and severe transparency.


*I doubt anybody minded. Ben and Andrew fought fiercely and eloquently about the ethics of advertorials, making for a far more interesting discussion that the one I tucked into my coat so I could sip beer and enjoy fight night from the best seat in the house.