Blurred Lines: Ethical Realities Regarding Sponsored Content

by Ivy Ho

[This is the third article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

news 2Advertorials have been around since 1949 in traditional print media, so the idea of sponsored content is nothing new. Advertorials differ from traditional advertising in that they are made to look and read like editorial content that normally appears in the publication. It is now standard practice and law to distinguish advertorials by marking them with “Advertisement” or “Special Advertising Feature” subtly but plainly printed. Otherwise, the publication can face legal fines. For this reason and to maintain the integrity of editorial content, most print publications have clear guidelines and policies around the acceptance of advertorial content.

However, ethical considerations around online, sponsored content still need to be addressed. Case in point: in January of this year, The Atlantic published an advertorial sponsored by The Church of Scientology, praising their accomplishments over the last year. The backlash from readers that followed was significant and ugly. Protesters took to social media and posted blogs to express their outrage. The Atlantic pulled the content within 12 hours of it being posted issuing an apology to its readers.

One of the main issues was that readers opposed content sponsored by The Church of Scientology. The other issue was that the online comment function, which is usually disabled for sponsored content, was not disabled for the Scientology advertorial. The initial comments were suspiciously and overwhelmingly positive towards the church, and it was later revealed that The Atlantic had screened out negative comments from its site.

This incident was just one example of how digital advertising has a long way to go in catching up to print in terms of policies and guidelines. The lines between editorial and advertorial are often blurred including the following: the process of how sponsors and content are accepted; how advertorial “articles” are written; and how sponsored content online comments are moderated or disabled.

If one good thing came out of the The Atlantic and The Church of Scientology incident, it was that online news editors are now more aware of the ethical implications around advertorials. Public relations professionals are also more aware of the backlash that can occur when transparency is lacking in the advertorial process.

In July, Edelman, one of the largest PR firms in the U.S., published a new paper by Steve Rubel, Chief Content Strategist. Rubel interviewed 30 media companies as research for the paper, which provides and ethical discussion and clear guidelines for sponsored content. Jeff Bercovici gives a good rundown of the six ideals outlined in the paper:

  1. Disclosure that sponsored content appearing on news sites is, in fact, sponsored.
  2. An opportunity for audience feedback. This one’s key, as The Atlantic chief mistake was not in accepting marketing dollars from a controversial organization but in screening out negative comments on the article to make it appear that the response was overwhelmingly favorable.
  3. A continued commitment to so-called earned media. In other words, PR firms shouldn’t use the opportunity to place sponsored stories as an excuse to stop working with journalists.
  4. Continuous updating so that sponsored stories are as current as the news content around them.
  5. No quid pro quo arrangements linking the buying of sponsored stories to editorial coverage of clients.
  6. A non-porous organizational divide between those who produce and place sponsored content and those who work directly with journalists. “This mirrors the so-called church-state divide in the press,” writes Rubel.

Although all six points are well taken and have been discussed before in communications and journalism classrooms across North America, the third point is interesting. I doubt that PR professionals will rely solely on paid media or sponsored stories. Credibility is much higher when a story is earned rather than paid for. When given the choice, earned media is much more desirable even if it is harder to earn and control than paying a publication to post your key message verbatim. For anyone working in communications, the relationship with journalists is an important one.

Ivy Ho has worked in the communications and marketing field for the past 20 years in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and is currently the Director of Communications and Marketing with a not-for-profit organization in Halifax while finishing the Master of Public Relations program at Mount Saint Vincent University.


Bercovici, J. (2013, October). “The Atlantic On That Scientology Advertorial: ‘We Screwed Up’”. Forbes. Retrieved from Retrieved from

Bercovici, J. (2013, July). “PR Giant Edelman Calls For Ethics In Sponsored Content”. Forbes. Retrieved from

“David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year”. Poynter website. Retrieved from

Edelman, R. (2013, July). “Sponsored Content: An Ethical Framework”. Edelman website. Retrieved from

Konnikova, M. (2013, October). “The Psychology of Online Comments”. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Moos, J. (2013, January). “The Atlantic publishes then pulls sponsored content from Church of Scientology”. Poynter. Retrieved from

Rubel, S. (2013, July). “Sponsored Content: A Broader Relationship with the U.S. News Media”. Retrieved from

The Atlantic website. Retrieved from

Wemple, E. (2013, January). “The Atlantic’s Scientology problem, start to finish”. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. “Advertorial” retrieved from



  1. Great article Ivy. I think this is one of the hardest things I am able to get my head around. With the changes in the journalism industry and the large scale cuts and changes in content quality, I find more opportunity to buy advertorials or receive them in “media partnerships” than ever before. I always wonder if they are effective or how the design and layout makes a difference. Great article to help me organize some thoughts on this!

    1. Thanks, Wendy. I’m glad it’s helpful. I stumbled upon The Atlantic/Church of Scientology incident when I first started researching my blog post topic. It turned out to be an excellent case study on how things can go embarrassingly wrong with sponsored content. The Edelman paper was also a great find. It’s rich with information and, specifically, has some handy guidelines for reference.

      In my own work, I haven’t participated in sponsored online content yet. I have with traditional print but it seems less of a grey area. Print seems much more obvious with the layout and design. Until the online news world has clearer distinctions between editorial and advertorial, I think I will stick to print for awhile.

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