I was perusing the May 28 issue of U-T San Diego and came upon a peculiar article about a discount being offered by an air-conditioning company.
What in tarnation kind of news story is this? I thought. Who the hell cares about pricing of—. And then it hit me. Oh, duh! This must be an advertisement.
A second, closer inspection confirmed my suspicion. Written just above the headline, so small it would make a dust mite reach for his reading glasses, was the phrase "Paid advertisement" thrice embedded within the separator.
Other than that, the article looked the same as every other U-T article, with a headline and a location followed by what seemed like standard reportage—using a similar typeface—making it virtually indistinguishable from a regular newspaper article. Take a look:
LOCAL BUSINESSMAN GIVES AWAY $188 A/C TUNEUPS AND DUCT WORK INSPECTION FOR ONLY $87
SAN DIEGO—According to the Department of Energy your central air condition and heating system uses about 43 percent of your household [blah, blah, blahs]. Much like an automobile, your A/C needs to be professionally [yada, yada, yada'd].
After some more rigmarole about this amazing special came the subhead: "WHY IS ASI HASTINGS GIVING AWAY A $188 TUNEUP AND DUCT INSPECTION FOR $87?"
"'There are really a couple of reasons,' says owner Ken Justo. 'The first is [blabber, blab, blabbedy-blabs].'"
For those who don't know, this journalistic abomination is called an advertorial, although I fondly refer to it as the steaming pile of horseshit deposited in the middle of your newspaper. Perhaps you've seen one before. I haven't—not in a newspaper, anyway. I've read plenty of magazine and tabloid advertorials. I've heard a few on the radio. I've seen a ton of television commercials disguised as talk shows—with a faux host, a faux guest and, most importantly, a faux audience cleverly chosen for their ability to make the "Holy shit!" face on command. But as godawful as those in-faux-mercials are, advertorials in newspapers are much worse. A news-paper is supposed to enlighten and educate. A news-paper is supposed to be a guardian and a disseminator of truth. And a news-paper is definitely supposed not to hoodwink its readers into thinking that some stupid air-conditioning company has earned legitimate, honest coverage in said news-paper when, in fact, the air-conditioning company paid a fucking hot-wad of hard cash for it.
It is, after all, why we call it a "newspaper" and not a "newsfaker" or a "fiblication" or a "shamazine." Because a newspaper that intentionally misleads its readers is like an anti-gay politician playing footsies with other men in bathroom stalls.
After Googling the word "advertorial," I learned that there's a plethora of companies that specialize in creating them for clients. Take, for example, Over the Moon Media. According to its website, Over the Moon Media oversees "the essentials of creating the advertorial; working with our clients to come up with a compelling headline and story for the advertorial based on our knowledge of the needs and concerns of the newspaper audience and client knowledge of product attributes and efficacy—to create the newspaper article look and feel of the finished piece."
Huh? Did you follow that? I sure didn't. That thing is as discombobulated as a possum at a porcupine party. It's confusing and awkward and wordy and repetitive and redundant and says the same thing over and over and over repeatedly. The whole thing could have been condensed into one sentence: "Over the Moon Media will help clients create a compelling pile of horseshit that can go inside any newspaper."
But, seriously, why would anyone hire this company? It's outright admitting that it's a fabricator of horseshit. And that mission statement is the biggest pile of all. It clearly doesn't know the first thing about writing newspaper articles—faux or otherwise: It doesn't know how to use a semicolon. It couldn't stop a run-on sentence with a road block and a spike strip. It calls newspaper readers an "audience." And it uses phrases like, "based on our knowledge of the needs and concerns of the newspaper audience and client knowledge of product attributes and efficacy" and/or "create the newspaper article look and feel of the finished piece," which has the, um, intelligence clarity look and feel efficacy of a finished fourth-grader.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, What's the big deal Ed? Advertorials are playful advertisements designed to be different, fun and attention-getting.
This was an intentional attempt to delude the reader. If it weren't, they would have put that disclaimer in large, bold print. Instead, they made a conscious decision to make it smaller (and thinner) than the rest of the text. They made a conscious decision to style the ad as closely to a real article as they could. They made a decision to take the money and toss their credibility.
If I owned a newspaper—or even a silly little fanzine or newsletter—not in a million years would I publish an advertorial. To me, it's as unethical as your psychiatrist saying, "You know what would really help that anxiety of yours, Ed—if you drank Absolut vodka. Absolut is made exclusively from all-natural yakkety, yak, yaken-yaks."
It may not be a huge deal in the scheme of things, but if you ask me, a newspaper that does this can't be trusted to tell the truth in real articles, either.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Edwin Decker blogs at www.edwindecker.com. Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.
Make sure not to miss the Sordid Tales podcast!