Thursday, April 12, 2007


Should ads look like news stories?

Thanks to Doug Carlson, the communications consultant who (among other things) advocates for better emergency communications over at his blog, for mentioning to me the ad on page A17 of today's Honolulu Advertiser. The ad looks just like a news story proclaiming, in headline type, "Public gets Presidential coins free."

In much teenier, lighter typeface, in fact in a size so small and thin that elderly readers will probably miss it, the infomercial does have the word "Advertisement." It wasn't placed there by the Advertiser, though, it's part of the ad. The Advertiser didn't do anything to let you know that the page is a full-page ad. I had to squint to read the tiny mice type.

I've previously written about two ads masquerading as stories in the Advertiser earlier this year, here and here. Those earlier ads had nothing whatsoever that would indicate they were not real news stories.

This practice raises obvious issues of journalistic standards. What are the ethics of trying to pass off ads like these as legitimate news?

Digging into the ads themselves leads me to wonder about why the Advertiser, supposedly quite profitable, decided it needed to run these ads in the first place. After all, an ad that would confuse their elderly readers should give them second thoughts before they accept it.

You can see a similar ad on the web here. Notice how teeny the single word "Advertisement" is. You know where to look or wouldn't you miss it? The ad is pretty much the same as this morning's Advertiser page except it asks for $18 instead of $8 for the free coins.

Hawaii readers get a deal--they must pay only $8 to "claim" their bargain. Readers of the Modesto Bee, on the other hand, for what appears to be the same coins, are asked to pay $18 to get the Presidential Coins free. I kind of resent that. Do they think we're some kind of banana republic or something?

Should the Advertiser be running these ads?

Obviously, that's up to them. I have nothing to say about whether they should run these ads or whether you should buy the coins.

Other newspapers have a policy, though, and won't do it without alerting their readers. Here is an example. The Advertiser might consider doing the same:
Mercury News renounces microscopic ad label

By Michael Stoll
Posted Nov 21, 2005

The U.S. Treasury engraves modern dollars with "microprinting" -- miniscule text that's hard to read and harder to copy -- to make it easier to spot a forgery. When typographical shrinkage appears in a major newspaper, however, it can actually make it more difficult to distinguish phony from genuine.

A page in the San Jose Mercury News on Nov. 8 had all the trappings of a news article informing readers about what seemed like a great deal: "rare" uncut sheets of real money, pitched as a perfect collectible Christmas gift that might be worth thousands someday.

But the page was actually an ad. While it was tagged with a disclaimer -- "Special advertisement feature" -- the type was so small that readers with less-than-perfect eyesight would need a magnifying glass to read it. It was about the same size as the fine print on a $1 bill, the part where it says, "This note is legal tender ..." The ad disclaimer was also printed over a gray bar, further diminishing its legibility.

Upon reviewing the ad, David Satterfield, the managing editor of the Mercury News, immediately determined that it violated the paper's policy, which explicitly states such material "must have the word 'Paid Advertisement' set above the ad content in Newton type no smaller than 14 points." The label on the page appeared to be about half that size. The policy also requires the ad to be enclosed in a two-point-thick border, which this ad was not....
If all of this raises your curiosity about the company, there is discussion here and more recently here. The Roanoke Times seems to have run the ad and has discussion in their article, Money for nothin'? Better read the fine print.

As an advocate for senior citizens myself, I hope the Advertiser will re-think running these ads without a clearly visible indication of what they really are.


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