Clickhole or Die: The Fight Over 'Sponsored Content' Is 150 Years Old

Sponsored content, native advertising, advertorials. Maybe better to call it what it is: media content, paid for by advertisers, produced to look like news. Whether you think it's ethical or not, we need to first acknowledge one important fact. The fight over this kind of advertising is about 150 years old.

This past Sunday, John Oliver denounced the scourge that is sponsored content on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. It wasn't his funniest segment, but he reasonably argued that some sponsored content can be deceptive. The part that he kind of skipped over? It's almost always been like this.

Oliver did explain in his segment that some TV news broadcasts of the 1950s used to have brand names like NBC's Camel News Caravan, which blurred the line between editorial and advertising as broadcasters shilled cigarettes. It's presented as an almost quaint and thus rather innocuous muddying of journalism's historically pristine waters. But it's misinformed to act as if our media landscape—and the way that it's paid for—is somehow radically different than it was a century ago. In many ways, we're simply returning to a model that was pioneered and perfected decades before any of us were even born.

"The publishing industry has responded to this crisis [in declining advertising revenue] by finding a new way to appeal to advertisers," Oliver tells us.

New? Only if you consider something like the motion picture showhouse "new."

A Brief History of Ads Disguised as News

One of the most interesting articles on the history of advertisements disguised as news is probably Linda Lawson's 1988 paper, "Advertisements Masquerading as News in Turn-of-the-Century American Periodicals."

Lawson explains just how prevalent advertorials were over a century ago. Back then they were called "reading notices:"

One such marketing technique was the reading notice. Assuming that people would be more likely to read news stories and editorials than display advertisements, businesses began writing advertisements in the form of news copy. Newspaper and magazine editors agreed to print them for money.

Lawson cites over a dozen specific cases of advertising content appearing as editorial at the turn of the 20th century, and meticulously documents the many fights over the ethics involved. Newspapers would openly solicit companies for paid advertising designed to look like straight news, demanding much higher rates than traditional ads. Lawson even describes an instance in 1886 when the New York Times asked for and received $1,200 from the Bell Telephone Company in exchange for positive coverage.

Not long after this minor scandal at the Times, New York's newspaper of record became the harshest critic of accepting money for editorial coverage. And there was a long stretch of history when the New York Times wouldn't accept advertorial content at all. But the now pixel-dependent Grey Lady is back to selling "native ads"—just as other media properties like Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and Gawker Media do each and every day.

Why the return to form? It's simple enough to explain. Just as they did in the late 19th century, ads that look like news are a lot more profitable than ads that look like ads.

Will You Die of a Terrible Disease Without This Product?

Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, everyone from insurance companies to oil companies to people selling patent medicines all inundated print media with ads disguised as news. Some had disclaimers, others didn't. And those who did run disclaimers didn't always do so in ways that made it obvious what was being disclaimed.

For instance, some publications put a star, or three stars, at the end of an article. These tiny stars were supposed to indicate that it was a paid advertorial rather than a straight news story. Obviously, many readers had no idea what the stars were supposed to mean, even if they made it all the way to bottom of the story. Other advertorials carried no notice at all.

Can you spot the ads below? Sure, there's the ad for suits and pants on the right. But what about the article just to the left?

Clickhole or Die: The Fight Over 'Sponsored Content' Is 150 Years Old

March 15, 1893 edition of the Newark Daily Advocate in Ohio

One patent medicine manufacturer from the 1890s who was trying to sell a product called Warner's Safe Cure would buy stories in Midwestern papers under headlines like, "A DANGEROUS DIET: How Meat May Cause Disease and Even Death." Clickbait if I've ever seen it.

But it wasn't until the fourth paragraph that—through personal testimonials of possibly fictitious people- readers learned how you could still eat meat and escape the clutches of death: just buy Warner's Safe Cure.

The article looked like any other news article in any other newspaper. But it was bought and paid for by "Dr." Warner of Warner's Safe Cure. No warning that it was an ad appeared at all.

Rejecting Advertorials for Fun and Profit

There were plenty of publishers throughout the 19th and 20th century who refused (quite publicly) to print advertorial content, even when it was well distinguished visually from hard news. Lawson points out that this was sometimes done for less than altruistic or principled reasons.

Again, from Lawson's 1988 paper in American Journalism:

Enterprisingly, some publishers used their refusal to accept reading notices in promotional campaigns. The editor of the Boston Post ran stories about how the newspaper had refused to be muzzled by a street railway that offered $100 a column for the publication of advertising matter as news. "His paper is getting a good advertisement out of it," one observer wrote.

We see some of this today, as some bloggers very loudly denounce traditional advertising and sponsored posts, despite the fact that they make money through things like affiliate advertising—making a percentage off of every purchase made when readers are directed to sites like Amazon. [Note: Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, makes money on both sponsored posts and affiliate advertising.]

As news consumers became wise to the use of advertorials in the late 19th century, journalistic organizations tried to agree on ethical standards. Journalists were generally thought of as untrustworthy, ranking perhaps just above the common purse-snatcher in respectability. If journalism was going to be treated as a profession, it would have to clean up its act in any number of ways—including creating standards for advertorials.

Lawson notes that by the late 1890s, many publishers that had previously accepted advertorials (again, known as "reading notices" at that time) were now rejecting them. Others proposed more distinct disclaimers that what readers were reading was advertising. The advertisers themselves lobbied to label the news using terms like "pure reading matter" and "absolutely pure reading matter" to distinguish news from ads.

Needless to say, advertisers, publishers, and news consumers all had competing interests in this debate, just as they do today. Nobody could agree on much.

Remember the Good Old Days?

The 1890s may feel like talking about an alien world, so what about the good old days that you might have been around to see? What about the magazines that fall into that romanticized golden era, just before the web and its complicated business models supposedly ruined journalism? Well, there were plenty of advertorials then too.

In 1996, one study found that "readers were virtually unable to notice labels in advertorials" that distinguished them from editorial content. That study examined the advertorials in magazines like Time, Glamour, Business Week, Sports Illustrated and Gourmet, among others. Roughly a third of the 273 advertorials that they looked at in those magazines were not labeled as advertisements in any way.

Clickhole or Die: The Fight Over 'Sponsored Content' Is 150 Years Old

February 19, 1996 cover of Time magazine

What if we go back another decade? Did you read any good magazines in the 1980s? Most of those probably had advertising disguised as regular news stories as well.

In 1986, studies estimated that advertorials accounted for about $113 million in revenue (about $236 million, adjusted for inflation) for the magazine industry. Advertorials made up about 5 percent of Time magazine's revenue and 8 percent of Field and Stream's revenue in the mid-1980s, while other titles were dependent on advertorials for as much as 14 percent of their total ad revenues.

These figures may seem relatively modest, but remember that this was back when subscription accounted for much more of the total revenue pie.

How the PR Industry Made Things Even Messier

Lawson's article explains that advertorials have never gone away since their introduction in the latter half of the 19th century, but their popularity does seem to ebb and flow with the economy. And her piece points to the rise of the public relations industry in the early 20th century as a major turning point for publishers. Public relations firms helped their clients write advertorials, of course, but more importantly, these firms developed relationships with reporters who needed to fill column inches with more and more stuff.

"It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers," Walter Lippmann writes in his classic 1922 book Public Opinion. "Having hired him, the temptation to exploit his strategic position is very great."

Why pay for a straight ad or even an advertorial, when you could convince a reporter to write about your company or product for free? Today, the PR industry calls this " earned media," and it's an important and calculated component of every company and organization's media plan, whether they're selling a political idea or a new gadget.

[Full disclosure: I've never written an advertorial, but I did work for a "non-traditional" marketing firm after college before I was lucky enough to make blogging my full time job. We did stuff like this.]

Peel Back The Onion and You'll Find a Clickhole of Beef

John Oliver picks on Buzzfeed's native advertising as particularly egregious. Well, thankfully we have sites that parody Buzzfeed like The Onion's Clickhole, right?

But even Clickhole has sponsored posts. Like "Which blade of grass are you?" presented by Jack Link's beef jerky, and "6 Heads You Never Realized Are Also On Mount Rushmore," also presented by Jack Link's beef jerky. If you're a regular reader of Clickhole you may have started to notice a pattern.

What's Clickhole's semi-open secret? The entire site was created as one big ad in a partnership with Jack Link's beef jerky. Yes, there would be no Clickhole without Jack Link's beef jerky. And people seem to be pretty okay with that, as long as Clickhole remains funny.

"We couldn't be more excited about working with Jack Link's on the creation of ClickHole," The Onion's CEO Steve Hannah said in a press release back in early June. "They understand that to make a splash in today's advertising landscape, brands need to provide consumers with quality, engaging content. The Onion is the go-to place for funny and sharable stories, and we are happy to partner with Jack Link's on such a unique project."

Yes, a unique project indeed. Wink and nod at the fact that your entire site is a cynical ploy to get people clicking on stuff. And we're all in on the joke! Except that some of us probably aren't. It's like nihilist flarf poetry wrapped in beef jerky ads. And journalists who decry sponsored posts as the absolute greatest sin of the media industry have no problem sharing Clickhole posts.

Clickhole produces genuinely funny stuff. But at the end of the day it exists to sell beef jerky, just as private editorial media (like this blog post, for example) have always existed to fill space in between ads for cars and wine coolers. The thing that terrifies us most seems to be that we're okay with that. And by "we" I guess I mean those damn kids these days.

Update August 8, 2014: I received an email from Derek Cuculich, the Director of Public Relations at The Onion/AV Club/Clickhole and he wanted to stress that the idea for Clickhole originated on the editorial side, not with Onion Labs (their creative agency) or Jack Link's advertising agency of record, Carmichael Lynch.

Excerpted from Cuculich's email:

The concept, ideas and execution of Clickhole were entirely from our creative staff. We were moving ahead with the Clickhole idea when Carmichael Lynch/Jack Link's caught wind and were interested in being a part on the project. Once that happened, and we were able to do this unique launch parter deal, it fell under the Onion Labs umbrella.

As far as the writers go, Clickhole has a dedicated editorial staff, led by editor and former Onion writer, Jermaine Affonso. No one from Onion Labs, or any agency, write for Clickhole.

He further stressed that, "Clickhole will continue to exist when Jack Link's sponsorship deal expires at the end of September."


Images: Coke ad scanned from the May 25, 1958 issue of American Weekly magazine; February 19, 1996 issue of Time magazine via Valleywag