The ethics of digital magazine advertising

With the rise of integrated magazine advertising – interactive ads, sponsored tweets, product links and video inserted into articles- the line between ads and editorial just got a whole lot fuzzier, writes Susan Currie Sivek.

In my recent discussions with magazine editors, executives and experts, I’ve heard a lot about how magazines will integrate new forms of advertising, and “monetization” opportunities, into their digital content. From digital editions to social media to mobile apps, magazines are exploring a variety of ways to provide advertisers with novel opportunities to reach audiences, just as they have in print.

During these discussions, though, there sometimes seems to be an undercurrent of concern beneath the excitement. The question is: How will magazines will integrate advertising into digital content? Could clicking on a product mentioned in a story take you to a site where you could buy that product — and what portion of the purchase is shared with the magazine? Would that fly ethically, if the writer didn’t specifically select that product with the link in mind? This technique is already in use at the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Will editorial content eventually be explicitly crafted around those revenue opportunities?

Or, more subtly, readers might start clicking on videos embedded in digital magazine editorial content and also in the accompanying ads, without recognizing which videos were created by the magazine and which were provided by an advertiser.

It’s clear that the new world of tablets, e-readers, mobile devices and the web is offering new opportunities to magazines and their advertisers. But what impact will this changing world have on the ethics of magazine advertising?

Church and State

In journalism, the “church and state” separation of editorial content and advertising has always been a goal, even if the separation might sometimes have been less rigid than it seemed. To maintain their objectivity and readers’ trust, editorial staff try to remain free from influence, and to produce content without considering its relevance to advertisers. This standard is included in journalistic codes of ethics, including the American Society of Magazine Editors’ own statement of Best Practices for Digital Media. This code states that any paid promotional content, sponsored links or affiliate relationships with online merchants must be clearly labeled as such.

Some magazines have experimented with different forms of advertiser-sponsored digital content, including interactive ads in digital magazine editions, online games, advertiser participation in web discussion forums, sponsored tweets and Facebook posts, and ads in mobile applications and the iPhone editions of their publications.

Premier guitar
Premier Guitar’s digital edition includes sponsored highlights

Though the magazines say they are careful to label advertiser-produced content so it can be distinguished from editorial content, as the codes of ethics require, readers’ experience with these new advertising approaches may not have caught up just yet to the magazines’ innovations. A reader who easily recognizes advertorial content or “Special Advertising Sections” in a print magazine might not readily notice when a tweet from a magazine has been paid for by an advertiser, for example.

Readers aren’t helped by the fact that, unlike in broadcast news or print publications, clear standards for distinguishing between ad and editorial haven’t yet been established for digital magazines.
Cecilia Friend
“It may be more difficult for most people to keep those distinctions clear online than in print or broadcast, for a number of reasons: Change comes faster, redesigns are continuous, fewer strong conventions have taken root,” said Cecilia Friend (pictured), professor of journalism at Utica College and co-author of the book “Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions” with Jane B. Singer. “The Online News Association points to the ‘unique permeability’ of web information, which makes it harder to isolate ads in time or space.”

This flow of interwoven editorial content and advertising in digital magazines may be more challenging for readers to interpret, particularly as they first become accustomed to using the digital medium.

Digital Magazine Study

Josh Gordon, president of Smarter Media Sales, recently completed a study of readers’ responses to advertising in digital magazines. Gordon’s study was sponsored by VIVmag, a digital-only magazine, and Nxtbook Media, a company that creates digital editions of print products, but it does offer insight into the growth of these publications and how readers might respond to advertising within them.
Josh Gordon
“When your readers are trained to expect that within the content of the editorial, they’ll click to get this or that, play a video, or participate with social media sharing tools, then they turn the page and there’s an ad with all the same stuff, it’s a very natural transition,” Gordon (pictured) said. “It’s a continuation of the kind of interactivity that you’re experiencing within the editorial content of the magazine. It’s a model that really works because people are kind of trained to do it, and their expectation is, ‘why should the ads be any different?'”

Arguably, if readers find value in the entertainment or information offered by these interactive ads, and the ads have been clearly designated as such, then the magazine experience might in fact be enhanced by ads.

Gordon has noticed, though, that some magazines branching out into interactive advertising have had to guide advertisers’ efforts themselves. Some advertisers and agencies have not kept pace with rapid innovations in digital publishing, which means magazine publishers have taken it upon themselves to help advertisers develop appropriate and sophisticated interactive campaigns for use in digital magazine editions. This collaboration, Gordon said, does create an opportunity for the wall between editorial and advertising “to get a little more porous.”

Interactivity’s Ethical Implications

In addition to maintaining the editorial-advertising separation, magazines going digital must also consider the nature of the advertising. Though much digital magazine advertising doesn’t yet do much beyond replicating static print advertisements, the increasing use of interactive elements, social networking and personalization might raise new ethical concerns.

Gordon said the new variety of interactive ads, though they still focus on products’ image and create emotions around the products, might in fact be in some ways “purer” than the ads of the past that primarily tried to create impressions of brands in the audience’s minds.

“The whole idea of these kinds of ads in these magazines is to create an experience. The whole focus is to get the reader to do something: to play a video, to enter a contest, to register for a download,” he says. “The bigger focus now is on getting the reader into some kind of activity, and in some ways that’s a less problematic form of advertising.”
maxim on facebook
It’s unclear if this Facebook post on Maxim’s fan page is an ad

Links from digital magazine content to other online sources of information or to online sellers offer another possibility for ethical compromise. Though some web surfers have always had to be cautious about what they find after clicking on any link, the still unfamiliar experience of navigating to and from digital magazine content might offer unscrupulous publishers a chance to lead trusting readers to unlabeled sponsored links by way of editorial content.

“People get it pretty quickly when links in ‘news’ content take them to a travel site or an online bookseller,” Friend says. “The exception may be health and pharmaceutical information where sponsored content is disguised as impartial scientific data. But that’s not just a digital issue — it’s a much deeper and more pervasive problem.”

Indeed, though the novelty and innovation of today’s digital magazine advertising might open up new ethical challenges, both Friend and Gordon said that in many ways, these are the same challenges magazines have always faced.

As digital magazines try to gain a foothold, some of them may use less-than-ideal forms of advertising to shore up their delicate financial situations, according to Friend. The temptation to cross long-established ethical boundaries may become too great, just as it might in the print world. When used by any publication, “in-text ads and other kinds of advertising that blur the content-ad distinction are troubling. And some online publications scrambling for revenue will succumb to the lure of unethical advertising,” she said.

Integrity is a Core Asset

However, in general, succumbing to temptation would damage digital magazines in the long run.

“Whatever the differences between digital and pre-digital news and discourse — and I don’t mean to dismiss them, because those differences are legion — content providers still need to consider editorial integrity — credibility — the core of what they have to sell,” Friend said.

Much of print or digital magazines’ marketability stems from their perceived journalistic honesty and their authority about their subject matter. “They need consumers to trust them,” she said. “And misleading them with content that looks like information but turns out to be advertising undermines that trust.”

As magazines shift into digital forms, then, they must deal with some challenges posed by new advertising techniques; but fundamentally, their ethical dilemma remains much the same as in the print era.

“The debate is alive and well, and I don’t see that diminishing one bit,” Gordon said. “There are always going to be those conflicting interests. These things don’t change. They just switch formats.”

MediashiftThis article was originally published on PBS Mediashift. J-Source and Mediashift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audiences of both sites.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.