Selling stealth advertising links embedded in editorial is unethical – why is that hard to understand?

Paul Conley updates his efforts to educate publishers on the obviousness of why paid links within editorial text should not be sold under any conditions. Bill Mickey at Folio: helped push the story along by clarifying the punctuation of an industry-group’s ethical guideline that, if parsed one way, could provide some ethical wiggle room for the practice. (The ethics committee responsible for the misplaced comma, quickly convened and clarified that no matter where the comma goes, selling ad links within editorial copy is unethical.)

As I am clearly and historically on record as being against stealthy text-ads inside the edit well, I feel the need to repeatedly clarify where I stand whenever this topic arises. The following are my personal thoughts, so that I can link back to them in the future when this topic arises. These are my thoughts, only — not a suggestion for any codes or guidelines. And there are probably some commas misplaced, also.

1. When in doubt about the ethical appropriateness of doing something, it’s probably unethical.

2. Highly visible disclosure and transparency of relationships, sponsorships and interests provide the audience with the information necessary for them to judge your credibility — and character.

3. Advertising, sponsorship, promotion and public relations are all perfectly ethical when carried out in the light of day. When there is an effort to cloak, confuse, obfuscate or hide who is behind them, they become unethical. For example, I believe that “paid reviews” in which bloggers are required only to bury somewhere in the post that they are sponsored are unethical, because there is a clear effort to confuse the casual reader — and to game search engines — into thinking they are merely another blog post. However, if such posts are clearly marked at the heading level with distinctive copy, something like “Sponsored Post” or “Advertising,” then they become more ethically defensible.

4. I believe it is ethical to use links that take readers to editorial content that is sponsored. The New York Times, for example, provides many links that allow the reader to click to a search of other New York Times articles that contain that word. Those search results pages are, in my opinion, editorial in nature — despite the fact that some of the search results will lead to “paid content” and along with the search results, the page will contain advertising.

5. I believe contextual advertising is very ethical (although sometimes risky) if the ads appear outside the edit well.

6. I believe it is ethical for marketers or others to provide products to reporters or bloggers to review, as long as the arrangement is prominently disclosed and explained to the reader. Here are some fuzzy areas related to this rule where disclosure is the best policy: when you are paid to be on a panel, but are also “covering” an event; clearly, you should disclose it when your expenses are paid by the sponsor or a third-party when attending an event you are covering (i.e., “familiarization tours” or travel expenses) — but I’m not sure if having a “media pass” to a ticketed event requires disclosure. However, since I’m not sure, I will disclose it when I have a “press pass” from here on.

7. Here’s one I’ve changed my mind on over the years. I think links to titles of books and songs can lead to affiliate stores as long as it is disclosed within the post what is taking place. For example, whenever I mention a book title, I usually link to Amazon.com. If I’m getting a commission from any sales of that book, I should disclose it. (For the record, I usually forget to embed my affiliate link and I don’t recall ever actually receiving any commissions from Amazon, but I still try to remember to disclose it when I have such a link.)

8. And finally, not only do I believe it’s ethical, it’s what I do for a living. I believe it is desirable for manufacturers, marketers and any company or group who has an audience to have their own array of online or print or broadcast or sky-writing media platforms to engage in conversations with others — as long as those platforms clearly disclose who’s doing what.