The hordes of news consumers who landed on the Huffington Post homepage on Monday might have encountered the item circled in red:
Sandwiched between items on the Supreme Court and crime, the Unilever CEO thing comes off as simply the news of the day. In fact, it’s a commercial for Unilever and its chief executive, Paul Polman. Just get a load of this passage in the write-up: “Polman discussed the ways Unilever works to remain a ‘gender-balanced’ company that provides equal opportunities to women. ‘If you invest in women, then you often get a higher return,’ he declared.” More such sentiment: “Polman also spoke bluntly about the importance of corporate social responsibility. ‘The role of business should be to make a positive contribution to society. Otherwise why would it be there? Why would people allow it to be there?’ he said. ‘So if anybody in business can’t explain what they do to help others or make a positive contribution, they should really ask themselves why they are there in the first place.’ ”
And so on. The story, under the byline of Huffington Post Parents Editor Caroline Bologna, is pure fluff derived from a video that Polman did with his son Sebastian. It’s part of the Huffington Post’s “Talk to Me,” a parent-child interview series. Other installments in the series have included Alexandra Pelosi interviewing Nancy Pelosi, Maria Shriver and Katherine Schwarzenegger, and Laura Bush and Barbara Bush.
The sponsor for this series? Unilever, the source of such brands as Lipton, Knorr, Dove, Axe, Hellmann’s and Omo. “We’re excited to launch this collaboration to share stories and spark conversations about issues that matter,” Gail Tifford, vice president for media and digital engagement at Unilever North America, said in the April announcement of the series’ kickoff. “As a company who touches two billion people every day with our products, our ability to have a positive social impact is enormous. Talk to Me is a great way to empower the next generation with meaningful and inspiring advice. It’s small acts – even a simple conversation – that can make the difference.” Christina Huffington, the daughter of Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, is the creator and executive producer of “Talk to Me.”
In the interest of transparency and business, the Unilever branding is attached to all the “Talk to Me” videos and sits atop the series’ landing page. That’s a common perk for a sponsor — it’s what the sponsor is buying. Less common is the ability to secure a video and placement on the homepage without clear signage indicating “Sponsored Content” or “Paid Content” or whatever. Which is precisely what Unilever got under this arrangement. Another no-no is the use of editorial talent to whip up what is in effect an advertisement for a sponsor.
When asked about these matters, Huffington Post Media Group Director of Communications Lena Auerbuch responded, “As you can see the entire section is sponsored by Unilever which is clearly indicated in the top banner. The episode begins with the language: ‘Presented by Unilever and HuffPost.’ ”
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at Poynter, cautions that she’s unaware of the Huffington Post’s guidelines with respect to native/sponsored content. “Most news organizations that care about their credibility have established policies that keep editorial and native/sponsored separate and super transparent. So the audience always knows what it is getting. And the independent editorial voice of the publication has some distance from the paid content.” The Erik Wemple Blog, not a media ethicist at Poynter, rules that there’s little such distance in this case.
The Atlantic magazine has drafted very precise language about how sponsors should be treated:
As with all advertising, Sponsor Content does not necessarily reflect the views and choices of The Atlantic’s editors. Accordingly, The Atlantic will prominently display the following disclaimer
on all Sponsor Content: ‘SPONSOR CONTENT.’ The Atlantic will include a disclaimer on all Sponsor Content that notes the involvement or non-involvement of The Atlantic’s editorial staff in curating or creating the Content and clarifies that the Content is made possible by a Sponsor. The Atlantic may additionally include, in certain areas and platforms, further explanation defining Sponsor Content to Atlantic readers. In addition, The Atlantic will ensure the treatment and design of Advertising and Sponsor Content is clearly differentiated from its editorial content.
All that said, the Unilever piece on the Huffington Post does not appear to be sponsored content. It’s a news piece that should be presented under the rules of sponsored content.
The Huffington Post might consider bagging corporate associations altogether, since it handles them so poorly. As this blog reported last month, a Huffington Post editor killed a story pitch about Uber just after the transportation company sewed up a partnership with the Huffington Post targeting drowsy driving. (The editor later apologized for his actions, saying, in part, “our partnerships never affect our coverage”). Not long after the site reached a partnership with mattress company Sleep Number, it published a review of one of the company’s “innovative” products. Enough of this.