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Time Inc. stoops to the level of the American Society of Human Genetics and PPNAS?

Do anyone out there know anyone at Time Inc? If so, I have a question for you. But first the story:

Mark Palko linked to an item from Barry Petchesky pointing out this article at the online site of Sports Illustrated Magazine.

Here’s Petchesky:

Over at Sports Illustrated, you can read an article about Tom Brady’s new line of sleepwear for A Company That Makes Stretchy Workout Stuff. The article contains the following lines:

“The TB12 Sleepwear line includes full-length shirts and pants—and a short-sleeve and shorts version—with bioceramics printed on the inside.”

“The print, sourced from natural minerals, activates the body’s natural heat and reflects it back as far infrared energy…”

“The line, available in both men’s [link to store for purchase] and women’s [link to store for purchase] sizes, costs between $80 to $100 [link to store for purchase].”

“[A Company That Makes Stretchy Workout Stuff]’s bioceramic-printed sleepwear uses far infrared energy to promote recovery…”

(There are quotes in the article, mostly from people with financial stakes in you buying these products. An actual sleep expert is quoted. He does not endorse or even reference the products discussed in this article, nor the science behind said products. His contribution to this article can be summed up as saying sleep is important.)

This is an advertisement, in every aspect save the one where money changed hands in exchange for its publication. (We think. This would honestly be a lot less embarrassing for SI to run if it were sponsored content and they just forgot to label it as such.) These sorts of advertisements, where certain types of reporters eagerly type up press releases because it’s quick and easy, are everywhere.

It seemed clear to me when clicking through to the link at SI.com that the article was sponsored content. But I could not find any such label.

The stretchy-underwear story is a bit of a joke, but in other places SI.com gets into what one might call Dr. Oz territory, as in this article hyping a brand-name “neuroscience” sports headset, with several quotes from the CEO of the company and a satisfied user and no quotes from competitors or skeptics.

This is the kind of one-sided story I’d expect to see coming from the American Society of Human Genetics or PPNAS, but it’s a bit disappointing to see it in a respected publication such as Sports Illustrated.

So here’s my question, which perhaps one of you can forward to a friend at Time Inc:

Is this what Sports Illustrated is all about now? I mean, sure, I’m not expecting crusading journalism every week. Sports is entertainment and as a sports fan I have no problem with the sports media promoting big-time sports. It’s symbiotic and that’s fine: the sports media needs sporting events to cover, and sports organizations want media coverage so that people will care more about the games. And I also understand that there’s no reason to gratuitously offend potential advertisers: no need for SI columnists to go on rants against training headsets or fancy sneakers or whatever.

But if you’re running ads, can’t you just label them as such? How hard would that be?

Don’t go all Dr. Oz on us, dudes!

I’m reminded of what a friend told me once, years ago, that it’s easier to be ethical when you’re rich. 40 years ago, the management of Time Inc. were sitting at the top of the world, bathed in prestige and attention and advertising dollars. They could afford the highest moral standards. Now they’re desperate for sponsorship and are doing the journalistic equivalent of knocking over liquor stores to pay the rent each month.

Or maybe this is all listed as sponsored content, and I just didn’t notice the label.

P.S. If you click on the author link at the above-discussed article on the stretchy underwear, you get a bunch more of the same:

New L.A. Rams stadium aims to be an indoor-outdoor entertainment experience

Cano, Bogaerts, New Balance customizing U.S.-made baseball cleats

Under Armour, Stephen Curry take a dip into lifestyle market with Curry Lux

For Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly, prescription eyewear is an accessory

Ex-Ravens, Rams receiver Mark Clayton designs NFL-ready headphones

Here’s what the top players will wear at the 2016 U.S. Open

Under Armour: From the sports tunnel to the fashion runway

For 2016, the U.S. Open adds more than a retractable roof

Asics develops shoes with new, color-changing mesh

The Kings’ new arena was designed with Sacramento in mind

How BMW is using auto technology to help Olympic swimmers in Rio

Georgia Tech and more college football teams add extra helmet protection

Nike engineers its new soccer ball, the Ordem 4, for true flight

OK, you get the idea.

It all looks like sponsored content to me. Well, maybe not the one about the retractable roof. All the others, though.

So this guy works in public relations. No shame in that. I’ve released a book or two in my time and I like to think that somebody’s out there promoting it. I’m purposely not including his name here because my problem is not with this one guy, it’s with the magazine not labeling these articles as ads or sponsored content.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising stretchy underwear in Sports Illustrated magazine—it makes sense to me. Just too bad that they’re not labeling the ads as such.

23 Comments

  1. Dzhaughn says:

    “Sponsored content” roughly implies there was some compensation that might influence the authors opinion. For example, if they gave him some underwear to try. Here, we may assume that SI rewrote the PR materials at their own pleasure.

    What amused me was the “Please don’t ad block us” ads that I got as I read the article.

  2. D Kane says:

    Here is an article in Columbia Magazine with similar problems. It is certainly as much of a “one-sided story” as the one in Sports Illustrated. No critics are quoted. (I bet that none were even interviewed!) You write:

    But if you’re running ads, can’t you just label them as such? How hard would that be?

    Indeed. Perhaps you could make this suggestion to Columbia?

    • Andrew says:

      D,

      As I wrote above, I think public relations is just fine—if labeled as such. Columbia Magazine is labeled pretty clearly as a public relations organ for Columbia University. For example, here:

      About the Magazine

      Columbia magazine is published quarterly for alumni and friends of Columbia by the University’s Office of Alumni and Development.

      • D Kane says:

        Well, I don’t see how “published quarterly for alumni and friends of Columbia by the University’s Office of Alumni and Development” is a meaningfully different description than what SI claims: “Sports Illustrated is the most respected sports media brand in the world.”

        Of course, there is a sense in which we all “know” that we should not take anything (?) in Columbia Magazine that seriously, that it will never (?) quote critics (of Columbia professors at least) or seek the other side in its stories. All true. But it never explicitly tells anyone that. And I, at least, don’t expect higher standards from a Sports Illustrated story about sleep wear.

        Nothing in Columbia Magazine makes it clear that this is “public relations.” Unless you think that anything with an intended audience of Columbia graduates is public relations, by definition.

        For example, the the Columbia student newspaper is, I suspect, published for students/faculty/staff at Columbia. Do you expect higher standards from it than from Columbia Magazine?

        • Andrew says:

          D,

          I don’t expect Sports Illustrated to shake the foundations of the sports establishment with every article but I do expect that it will deliver independent reporting and not run stupid-ass press releases. In contrast, Columbia Magazine is all press releases. “Office of Alumni and Development” is a synonym for “fundraising.” I’d actually have no problem with Columbia Magazine seeking the other side in its stories but it’s not something I expect to see.

          When you write, “a Sports Illustrated story about sleep wear,” the whole point is that Sports Illustrated doesn’t really run stories about sleep wear. It’s just an ad, posing as a story.

          As for the Columbia student newspaper: yes, that is supposed to be journalism, not public relations. Indeed, I’d expect the Columbia student newspaper to cover Columbia University in about the same way I’d expect Sports Illustrated to cover organized sports: in a generally supportive way but following the principles of independent journalism, and not slipping in ads as if they were news stories.

          • Rahul says:

            I disagree with your assessment of Columbia Magazine. A University magazine is supposed to report on matters that impact the University, its students and alumni and which would be of interest to those audiences and other stakeholders with an interest in the University.

            But that doesn’t get it a free pass to report crap or one sided stories. A Press Release is totally different from a University Magazine. In fact, the cell responsible for PR is typically different from the group managing the Magazine (I think).

            In Columbia’s case I see the mag coming out of “Office of Alumni and Development” whereas the shitty Press Releases come from “Office of Communications and Public Affairs”. Different departments. Different purposes. I think. Correct me if I am wrong.

            • Andrew says:

              Rahul:

              No, you’re just not familiar with the jargon. The P.R. people write the press releases, the alumni magazine prints them with the goal of getting donations from alumni. The alumni magazine does very little reporting.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Adding to Andrew’s reply:
                Rahul, it sounds as though you may not be aware that “development” means fundraising.

              • jrkrideau says:

                I am a fairly regular recipient of my undergraduate university’s alumni magazine and while it is quite interesting it is clearly and obviously not intended to be the equivalent of a general purpose news magazine or even the equivalent of the student newspaper which from time to time does some good investigative reporting.

                The mag is clearly a fund-raising and solidarity device which also helps in student recruiting.

              • Keith O'Rourke says:

                Yup – it is primarily to raise funds.

                (Which, by the way, takes up about 30% of a University president/provost’s time as I have been told by a number of individuals in those roles.)

                There is a lot of pressure to puff up the work of the faculty (and former students) almost but not quite beyond credibility (to potential donars/funders).

  3. D Kane says:

    Let me provide the exact comparison:

    Columbia Daily Spectator (student paper):

    Founded in 1877, the Columbia Daily Spectator delivers news daily to thousands of readers around Columbia University, Morningside Heights, West Harlem, and beyond.

    Columbia Magazine (university publication):

    Columbia magazine is published quarterly for alumni and friends of Columbia by the University’s Office of Alumni and Development.

    I have never read either publication, but my prior would be that the former does much more actual journalism (defined as interviewing/quoting critics) than the latter. And that is OK. I would hardly be surprised/upset if much/most of the material in Columbia Magazine is sponsored content in all but name, recycled press releases and what not.

    You seem to believe that everything in Sports Illustrated should either be journalism (quote both sides) or clearly labelled sponsored content. Yet you don’t expect such a clear demarcation from Columbia Magazine even though the latter goes to great lengths (?) to look like actual journalism, as in the article that looked at your work.

    • Andrew says:

      D,

      It’s all about context. Columbia Magazine is basically 100 pages of press releases and alumni news, every issue. Columbia Daily Spectator is news and features about Columbia University, not press releases. Sports Illustrated is news and features about sports, not press releases. Magazines such as Sports Illustrated traditionally label their ads as such, they don’t run ads in the form of news articles.

      • D Kane says:

        Andrew,

        I think we have iterated to agreement! However:

        Magazines such as Sports Illustrated traditionally label their ads as such, they don’t run ads in the form of news articles.

        1) Obviously, you should update your prior. With the decline of media (especially print), organizations like Sports Illustrated will have no choice but to do more of this in the future.

        2) An interesting statistically question is: How would we test your claim about the history of Sports Illustrated? Weren’t there, back in the day, at least some stories that were as uncritical and hagiographic as sleep wear? Consider their coverage of the 1998 home run race featuring juicer Mark McGuire. (Apologies but I can’t find an on-line copy.) My memory was that the Sports Illustrated “news” articles that entire summer never once mentioned the possibility of steroid abuse even though this was widely discussed among players/reporters. That (if true!) strikes me as a much greater sin against journalistic ethics than sleap wear trype today.

        3) In other words, tens of thousands of words written about the home run race of 1998 were little more than one big “ad” for Major League Baseball. Nothing wrong with that! Nothing wrong with never discussing the underlying scandal (again, assuming that my memory is correct). Ahh! Finally found an example article here. And, yup, it was the 1998 equivalent of sleep wear! No critics. Nothing about roids, even though McGuire’s use was widely know and has, since, prevented him from going to the hall of fame.

        My point, I guess, is that we should all beware of assuming that the past was some golden age in which the sins of the present did not exist. Sports Illustrated does great reporting now and it did great reporting then (including about steroid use, both before and after 1998). It also did (and does) articles that are little more than product placements (but which are, for all that, popular with its readers). Whether it does more or less now than it did then is unclear to me . . .

        • Andrew says:

          D,

          I never assumed the past was some golden age. As I wrote above, “I’m not expecting crusading journalism every week. Sports is entertainment and as a sports fan I have no problem with the sports media promoting big-time sports. It’s symbiotic and that’s fine: the sports media needs sporting events to cover, and sports organizations want media coverage so that people will care more about the games.”

          Sometimes a magazine such as Sports Illustrated will do some investigative reporting, but usually they’re promoting organized sports, not questioning it. It’s been that way forever with rare exceptions.

          What was bugging Palko (and me) was this particular item where SI was advertising a product in this misleading way. I don’t think this is the same as advertising major league baseball. I expect SI to promote bigtime sports; I don’t expect it to be slipping in underwear ads in the guise of reporting. (Yes, there’s the swimsuit issue but I think that’s pretty clearly different from the rest of SI’s content.)

          • Mark Palko says:

            Admitting that things weren’t perfect in the past does not preclude the possibility that they’d gotten worse in the present. All of the things complained about here have been around at some level since modern newspapers and magazines appeared late in the 19th century. For instance, a friend of mine who used to work for one of the major studios would routinely write “news stories” that would appear under staff bylines in publications like the Hollywood reporter, but the examples have grown more blatant and have crept further and further into what was once considered “hard news.” When you combine this with declining standards and increasingly credulous reporting, the result is disastrous.

            For background, check out what Felix Salmon wrote about the “black-to-hack ratio.”

  4. Jonathan says:

    I think that’s because a) it’s online and ethical standards online aren’t ethical standards*, b) it’s Tom Brady and c) it’s sleepwear, not underwear, which they oddly can “report on” because it claims to be restorative sleepwear because it reflects body heat into certain areas because the fabric is printed with some infrared reflecting stuff. Underwear by UnderArmour isn’t a story, but restorative sleepwear is like a really pretend big deal.

    *E.g., Cleveland Clinic doc says vaccine additives cause autism. He’s the head of their alt-medicine clinic and it turns out they have an online store that sells actual quack remedies. Because ethical standards online aren’t ethical standards.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      Yes, I think you’re on to something there, in particular your point (a). We get some of that here on the blog, for example with Susan Fiske slamming online critics as “terrorists” and then not even bothering to address us directly. We’re online so we’re not considered as real as, say, Psychological Science.

    • jrkrideau says:

      I think the online store is just a incidental thing. The guy seems a complete woo-merchant to begin with. The ethics may be a bit blurred however.

      On the other hand it is possible that the Cleveland Clinic is laughing all the way to the bank with that quack medicine clinic. A few extra guilders/shekels/reals from the store probably is welcome.

  5. Rachel says:

    This is called “native advertisement”.

    Basically, there are 2 aspects to native ads: 1.the content will match the website/magazine theme (e.g. sports theme in sports illustrated = sports stuff/sports underwear).
    2. The ads/”sponsored content” is not always labelled as sponsored. It is presented as a part of the website/magazine content.

    Nothing wrong in what SI or Columbia have done. It is just a “type” of ad.

    • Andrew says:

      Rachel:

      I do think there is something wrong with it when there is an attempt to mislead, which is what I see in the press release that is not labeled as sponsored content. Again, it’s all about context. I don’t mind SI running a puff piece on pro hockey. But I mind when they try to sneak in an underwear ad as if it was news.

  6. I agree that this should have been labeled as an ad. It is blatant over-the-top (or below-the-bottom) advertising, but it poses as an article.

    But where to draw the line? What do you do with publications in fields such as education and business? You can’t get through an issue of Education Week without seeing someone tout a “strategy” or “solution” (that comes with a product or consulting service). This is advertising, but it appears in regular articles. Or Harvard Business Review–its articles about workspaces (for instance) are often written by consultants who manage to mention their own services.

    It’s fine to mention one’s own work (or someone else’s) in an article–but if said article focuses on a particular problem and proposes a particular product as a solution, it becomes an ad, correct?

    If so, is there a need for a revived and revised code of journalistic (and publisher) ethics? The problem is bogglingly diffuse.

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