The Fine Line Between Editorial and Advertising

The 21st century has greatly increased consumers’ exposure to an all-too-familiar form of self-help publications: magazines that deal with fitness, health, and beauty. Shape Magazine, one of the 50 largest magazines in the United States , is one of them. Recently, Shape encountered a run-in with the law when it did something that not many magazines have done before: the September 2013 publication had an article on Shape Water Boosters under the “news” heading.

You may ask, what’s the big deal about that? The problem is this: the article was under “news” but had the feel of an advertisement that targeted individuals who want to drink water to stay healthy but do not like the taste of water.

Immediately after the release of the magazine, the National Advertising Division, conducted an inquiry, and stated in a ruling that this practice “blurred the line between advertising and editorial content in a way which could consumers.” The primary argument of the ruling was that companies must clearly establish and state whether which part of their publication is advertising and which are editorial. The underlying assumption here is that the distinction of whether something is an ad or an editorial might make all the difference between a consumer buying or not buying a product.

Most, if not all of us, weigh advertisements and editorial pieces differently. When we view an advertisement with all its gimmicks and humor, we may enjoy how the product and its supposed benefits are portrayed, but we may still be skeptical as to whether it actually works as shown. On the other hand, we assume that an editorial about said product has been used, tested, or researched on by the writer. Consumers tend to linger more on the opinions of editorials because they can show both the positive and negative aspects of the product, whereas the advertisement will never show the latter.

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, believes that publications should always make the distinction between editorial and advertising for readers. This is particularly important the area of media ethics because transparency is necessary to ensure that readers/consumers are not manipulated or fooled.

Additionally, after the publication of the article, the Center for Science in the Public Interest took issue with claims of the water booster product with regards to how well it works. Although Shape did use a warning from the Center for Science in the Public Interest against high-calorie sugary drinks as one of the reasons for why Water Boosters is a worthy substitute, they still attracted negative attention from the Center itself. David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center, said that through his own evaluation of the product, he believed that there were no actual health benefits, such as “beauty, wellness, slim, and energy” as displayed in the editorial/ad. As a result, not only was the ad in the wrong place, it could also have just been a hoax.

Advertising companies should take note of this story and learn from it. If you’re going to advertise a product, don’t put it in a magazine that you publish under the “news” heading or clearly indicate that it is an ad, and make sure that it at least has some credibility to it.



One thought on “The Fine Line Between Editorial and Advertising

  1. While reading this post, I thought about the ads I notice every month when I read Cosmo. Recently I have noticed the ads are clearly marked at the top in bold as Advertisement. I agree completely with you, consumers weigh advertisements and editorials differently and they should be clearly marked as such. By doing this, it will allow the readers to know which is which since the ads are looking more and more like stories now. While this is a smart move on the advertisers part because they blend in better for the magazine, the ethics of it are becoming blurrier.


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