This week, I decided to carry a small note to readers every time Mint carried what the paper’s marketing department calls a Media Marketing Initiative (or, in short, MMI).
A Media Marketing Initiative is essentially an advertorial, but both advertisers and publishing firms prefer more ambiguous terms. MMI is one such. Then there are others including special feature, special report, and the like. Some publishing companies prefer to use their own coinages—the India Today Group used to prefer the term Impact Feature when I worked there (I have no idea what it uses now because I don’t read any of its magazines); and the Outlook group uses Spotlight. Then, there are other publishing firms that choose not to say anything at all, leaving it to the reader to figure out whether a report on Sudan or Russia is an editorial feature, advertorial, or, still worse, a paid-for editorial write-up.
Mint has always had clear rules regarding MMIs, much like it has for just about anything, and every month, or every 45 days, the paper features, on Page 1, a note to readers explaining these rules. Here’s what that note says:
From time to time, you will see a page or a feature in Mint that is clearly labelled as Media Marketing Initiative. Such sponsored content is entirely generated by an advertiser or the marketing department of Mint on behalf of an advertiser, and does not involve any Mint editorial staff. Such pages/features also have a different font and style to help let you identify that they are not part of Mint’s editorial content. As clearly stated in Mint’s Journalistic Code of Conduct, which is available on our website www.livemint.com, there is an inviolable line between news and advertising at Mint. We thought it would be useful for us to reiterate this to you.
As always, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In recent months, I have noticed an increase in the number of MMIs in Mint (and, to be fair to our own marketing department, in other publications). While these MMIs followed all the rules mentioned in the note above, I felt that given their increasing frequency, readers probably deserved a better warning. And so, I wrote out a simpler and more direct note. Here’s what it says:
The Media Marketing Initiative being distributed along with today’s Mint is the equivalent of a paid-for advertisement, and no Mint journalists were involved in creating it. Readers would do well to treat it as an advertisement.
We will probably still carry the old note every two months or so because it lays out Mint’s philosophy regarding MMIs rather elegantly (it was drafted by my predecessor and Mint’s founding editor Raju Narisetti). And we will carry the new note, which actually mentions the page where the MMI appears, every time the paper carries one.
Apart from warning readers, I also hope that this message will dissuade at least some advertisers from asking for advertorials in Mint, and some basic reporting and research I have done over the past few days makes me believe they will.
There are, broadly, three types of advertorials.
The first are those where a company wants a gushing article about itself, its products or services, or its CEO. Many of these companies are unlikely to be covered by publications simply because they aren’t newsworthy enough.
The second are those where the marketing department of a publication decides to put together a contextual MMI in the hope of attracting enough advertisers—and meeting targets. For instance, a publication could choose to create content on cars (some ask their editorial staff to do this; in Mint’s case, the marketing department either does this itself or outsources it to someone) and then seek ads from carmakers. This is different from industry reports carried by publications such as The Economist and Mint (although I wouldn’t presume to compare ourselves to that newspaper).
The third are those where an advertiser works with the marketing department of a publication to create content on an event, person, or anything else, to express respect and gratitude to or simply curry favour with a third person or entity. The spate of reports commemorating the royal wedding in Bhutan falls squarely in this category.
There’s also a fourth, where an advertiser pushes a certain point of view, but there haven’t been too many of these in the Indian context (maybe because a company that is in a position where it needs to shape opinion is probably large and powerful enough to have pliant editorial writers do its bidding)
The first type of advertorials is sometimes the most insidious. While advertisers sometimes decide to go the advertorial route because it is less expensive (advertisements usually cost more), there are times when they do this hoping that readers will be fooled into believing that a laudatory article on the CEO of a company is an objective piece of journalism and not what it is—a paid-for ad masquerading as content.
In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such advertorials. Then, in an ideal world, readers will pay Rs 10 for each copy of Mint.
In the real world, all a publication can do is have rules, and practice full disclosure to readers.
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