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Media panelists debate blurring of ad/edit lines

MIAMI — Sponsored content. Advertorial. Special section. Native advertising. Whatever you want to label it, it’s not a new concept.

Members of the Marine Marketers of America were joined by boating industry representatives, publishers, editors and reporters for a Miami International Boat Show discussion about the future of marine publishing and the increasingly blurry lines between editorial content and advertising.

“As a publisher, I have nothing if I don’t have integrity,” Sally Helme, group publisher of Cruising World and Sailing World, says of the need to clearly identify advertorials as advertising content. “There is no point in trying to fool your readers. Don’t insult your readers by putting something out there that’s not authentic.”

The discussion, titled, “Marine Publishing: New Methods to Market Your Message,” was moderated by MMA vice president Michael Sciulla, and it included a panel of five marine publishing experts. Sciulla opened the forum by asking whether editorial content is still clearly separated from advertising, and in the case of editorial content written by or for advertisers, whether the system works for readers, sponsors and publications.

Panelist David Pilvelait, of Home Port Marine, expressed concern as a public relations representative that there is limited editorial space for new products developed by smaller companies without big marketing budgets. He says those companies have difficulty getting new products reviewed in editorial pages without buying ads.

“This is an evolving marketplace,” says Duncan McIntosh, publisher of Sea magazine, Editor & Publisher, The Log and Boating World. The names and labels change, and the way editorial is distinguished from ads continues to change, he says.

Much of the medium is now digital, McIntosh says, and although publishers scale content, or mark the content, in a range of different ways, he believes editorial and advertising are compatible platforms. “It comes down to quality. If content [editorial or advertising] is relevant, entertaining and humorous, it will work,” he says.

Jim Rhodes, of Rhodes Communications, says the mixing of editorial and advertising content has been around for a long time and that there is an obligation on both sides to be authentic. The publisher’s biggest asset is reader loyalty, he says. “If you have the loyalty of the reader, the advertising will follow,” Rhodes says. “A publisher cheapens content and risks losing readers by printing unlabeled advertorial content. But if it’s clearly labeled, I think it’s fine.”

Shawn Bean, editorial director of Bonnier Corp.’s Active Interest Network, says the lines are even murkier in social media. Content posted on Facebook or Twitter can’t be marked, he points out. “We can’t put a name on a YouTube video. We can’t mark it as edit or ad. This continues to evolve right in front of our eyes,” Bean says. “Trust is the epicenter. I’m not exactly sure where we’re headed, but we have to figure it out.”

Audience members argued that editors, writers and publishers have an obligation to fact-check the content of native advertising, but Helme disagrees, saying it behooves advertisers to tell the truth. “We need to be honest, and we need to be transparent,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.

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