The definition of "advertorial" is an advertisement that imitates an editorial format. They have been around for years, and most of us can recognise them a mile off. Typically an advertorial appears under the words "special advertisement feature", or some variant. It may look like editorial but it is obviously advertising.
Most, if not all, newspapers carry advertorials, and no one bats an eyelid. However, some titles have begun carrying advertorials which are very difficult to spot, and may seem almost indistinguishable from an article even to the educated eye. They are laid out like normal features, and commonly written by staff journalists. The only clue they are paid-for adverts may be a small logo of the sponsoring company, often tucked away at the bottom of the page.
The Daily Telegraph appears to be leading the way with this new, self- effacing form of advertorial. On 16 October last year, the paper carried a full-page article about the "the medicine maze" by Victoria Lambert. Only an eagle-eyed reader would have noticed the words "In Association With Boots" not very prominently situated at the top right-hand of the page. The piece was balanced, but it included a panel, presumably not written by Ms Lambert, which offered tips to the reader. One was to "speak to your Boots pharmacist to find out if you would benefit from this service".
Many readers may have assumed this was disinterested advice whereas, in fact, it was part of a feature paid for, or sponsored by, Boots. One among several other examples from The Daily Telegraph is a full-page headlined "Age of Energy", which appeared on 18 September 2010. This was sponsored by Shell, though the only evidence is the company's tiny logo at the top of the page.
The main article is a straightforward piece by the respected environmental writer Geoffrey Lean which does not mention Shell. Beneath it, however, is an article by James Smith, chairman of Shell UK, arguing for energy conservation. His piece, which makes his oil company seem caring and responsible, gains credibility from its association with Mr Lean's. Again, I doubt many readers were aware that money had been paid by Shell to The Telegraph.
Other newspapers have also pushed the boundaries that traditionally separate advertorial from editorial. In August 2009, the Advertising Standards Authority accused the Daily Express of "routinely publishing what appeared to be full-page features for various products. The top half of the pages was presented as an article containing information about a product, including efficacy claims for that product ... The bottom half of the pages featured an ad that contained information on where that same product could be bought."
Times are tough for most newspapers, and one can see why these and other titles should be relaxing accepted standards. It is easy to imagine how hard-pressed editors may be browbeaten by managing and advertising directors struggling to maximise revenue in straightened circumstances. They, in turn, are being persuaded by the big media buyers that advertorial should look more like editorial. There are even more pernicious suggestions that some media buyers are placing ads on behalf of clients in return for assurances that their clients' products will be separately lauded in articles purporting to be independent.
Rather surprisingly, the Advertising Standards Authority has received only four complaints in the past year about misleading advertorials, none of which was upheld. I'd say on this evidence that the problem is much greater. Times may be hard, but editors must fight to preserve the distinction between editorial and advertising. Newspapers cannot survive without advertising, but if they blur the lines, and agree to carry advertorial that looks like editorial, their reputation for truthfulness will be further diminished.
How to get ahead at News Corp
The front page of last Thursday's Independent carried a photograph of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose regime is stamping down on revolt. The President is only in the job because his father, a genocidal maniac called Hafez al-Assad, was dictator of Syria for 29 years.
History tells us that the heredity principle sometimes works – but I tend to draw the line at dictators. I don't see why it should be thought that because your dad was a tyrant you should be up to the job.
I also can't help wondering whether James Murdoch is the ideal successor to his father Rupert, who was 80 last month. He is leaving his job as viceroy of the Murdoch empire in London and returning to court in New York, where he has a long and fancy title that means he will be number three, and heir apparent to his father, who has built News Corp into the biggest media company in the world.
Is the 38-year-old James really the best available person to take over a vast public company in which the Murdoch family happens to have only a 12 per cent share? He was an effective chief executive of BSkyB, though he made the mistake of buying a stake of nearly 18 per cent in ITV, most of which has been sold at a considerable loss. Nor is it obvious – witness the phone-hacking saga which should have been closed down years ago – that he has run the UK newspaper operation brilliantly.
Speaking of which, James's transfer leaves Rebekah Brooks as the new regent in London, though he remains nominally in charge of the operation, and will keep a transatlantic eye on BSkyB. As Rupert shuffles the cards, perhaps not as dextrously as once he might, I get the sense that his British newspapers are being left at the bottom of the pack.