Yesterday (25 April) saw the Branded Content Research Network present both academic and anecdotal findings around the intensifying merging of media and marketing communications to members from the likes of the ASA, the IAB, Ipso and Ofcom. It highlighted the problems arising from unlabeled branded content, particularly in the digital realm, and the threat it poses to the public’s trust of journalism.
“We think branded content is important enough to need an investigation that ranges from considering the business side but also the implications of marketers moving further and further into editorial space,” said Jonathan Hardy, the network’s coordinator and professor of media and communications at the University of East London.
He called for the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport and Lords Communications Committee to look at branded content as an area of enquiry.
It could be a likely outcome as the network made links between paid-for media and the juggernaut of fake news, which, before the dissolution of parliament, was an ongoing inquiry for the select committee. Written evidence on the topic was published last week and included a submission from Andrew McStay and Vian Bakir from Bangor University, also part of the Branded Content Research Network, which recommended that advertisers be encouraged to take more of a leading role in the fake news issue.
Their evidence stated: ‘Consult with advertisers, ad networks, programmatic advertising firms who serve the advertising, as well as bodies that represent the interests of the industry (e.g. the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK). Although the programmatic firms themselves may not have a vested interest in assisting, advertisers do have an incentive: even the most disreputable will not want their ads associated with content that, by its nature, cannot be trusted.’
By improving the transparency of their branded content, and staying savvy by avoiding programmatic deals with fake news sites, advertisers will have a double mandate to regain consumer trust, the academics believe.
McStay added at yesterday’s seminar: “Most of the fake news created [that we reviewed] wasn’t created for propaganda purposes, it was created for money … We think advertising firms are very well placed to identify suspected publishers of fake news.”
However as parliament breaks until the general election, it remains to be seen whether the momentum regarding the fake news case and any other related inquiries in parliament will continue enough to implement real change.
Hardy also suggested that a standardised precedent to label paid for content consistently be put in place, and proposed that the burden of regulation be shifted from the consumer, who may be unaware of the nature of branded content, to the media.
“There should be a presumption that media is misleading unless it’s been properly identified and labeled in advance,” he said.
Damian Collins MP, the chairman of the commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, came out separately on the subject of fake news earlier this week. He called on Facebook in particular to do more to tackle the issue ahead of 8 June.
Conversely, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg said it would be "inappropriate" for the platform to play publisher when it comes to fake news in an interview with the BBC on Monday.