BuzzFeed cancelling RNC ads masks the issue: sponsored content for politicians

Can native advertising, notorious among many readers as deceptive, sit comfortably alongside journalistic output? BuzzFeed wasnt willing to roll the dice on Trump but it isnt running away from the idea

BuzzFeed has drawn some positive press for its Monday announcement that it was canceling a reported $1.3m advertising agreement with the Republican National Committee, blaming Donald Trumps controversial campaign.

In an email to staff, BuzzFeeds founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti, said that the company had inked the deal in April 2016 for a series of advertisements in autumn 2016, shortly before the national election and the time when, historically, most Americans finally begin paying attention to the campaigns in earnest. But in the months since signing, Peretti said, Trumps unique campaign, which is directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States and around the world, made the agreement untenable.

The RNCs spokesman, Sean Spicer, told CNN: Space was reserved on many platforms, but we never intended to use BuzzFeed.

What was missing from the announcement (and much of the news coverage) is that the deal inked in April would not have been for display advertisements the industry term for ads, like those seen on the Guardians website, that appear on a webpages margins or inside an article. BuzzFeed doesnt run display ads at all: the advertising it solicits, accepts and places on its site and promotes on social media is native advertising, sometimes known as sponsored content, and includes sponsored videos. In 2015, two marketing companies calculated that the minimum buy-in for a native advertising campaign at BuzzFeed was $100,000; that gives some sense of the potential scale of the now-scuttled RNC campaign.

In other words, in April 2016, when Donald Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, BuzzFeeds advertising department inked a million-dollar agreement with the Republican party to write or help write posts and produce videos to be placed on the site and, if the contract was in keeping with much of BuzzFeeds other ads, to promote on social media in support of Republican candidates, on behalf of the party.

BuzzFeed was tapping into what everyone expects is a huge potential market: the Obama and Romney campaigns spent $78m on online ads in the 2012 election, which was hardly as historic or controversial as 2016 is shaping up to be. But market research firm Borrell and Associates estimates that all political actors could spend as much as $1bn on digital ads this cycle driven, at least in part, by the declining return on investment for more traditional (and more expensive) television ads.

It was not BuzzFeeds first foray into sponsored political content. Perettis email noted that we accept advertisements from both republican and democratic [sic] candidates, and the site ran, reportedly unsuccessfully, a series of six sponsored posts for the Obama campaign in 2012. In October 2015, the site hired Rena Shapiro as its vice-president for politics and advocacy, and she promised to target political and advocacy groups as potential buyers of our shareable videos [and] our social posts.

But native advertisements are controversial both in and outside of traditional editorial departments: the UKs Advertising Standards Authority, for instance, ruled in January that a piece of BuzzFeeds native advertising ran afoul of UK codes that require it be clearly labeled as advertorial. And in 2013, the Atlantics decision to run a poorly labeled native advertisement from the Church of Scientology produced a short-lived round of soul-searching among many publishers struggling with ever declining display-ad rates and the need to nonetheless fund (hopefully quality) journalism.

And many readers find native advertising deceptive, when they realize they are advertisements at all. A 2015 study by Contently, a digital marketing company, found that the more trusted the brand, the less likely readers were to be able to successfully distinguish between native advertising and a companys journalistic output. (It also found that 48% have felt deceived upon realizing a piece of content was sponsored by a brand.)

While media companies accepting money from political campaigns (and organizations such as Super Pacs and advocacy groups supporting candidates) is a fairly standard practice, accepting money to run pieces of sponsored content that many readers will mistake for journalism in support of those candidacies is not and thats the deal that BuzzFeed nixed on Monday.

But that deal only covers Donald Trump; Peretti noted that BuzzFeed had already run sponsored content on behalf of political candidates, and the hiring of an executive last October whose job it is to do so strongly suggests that the company plans to expand its current efforts on behalf of candidates and other political actors as the election year wears on. BuzzFeed has already weathered many controversies about its native advertising program without having had an effect on its editorial operations. The question for Peretti is whether placing native advertisements for candidates and issues without regard for party or position alongside its wellregarded and awardwinning news and politics coverage will be more trouble than its worth (even though, in all likelihood, it could be worth a lot).

When it comes to Trump, the answer is no. It remains to be seen to what the business department will say yes to next.

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