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As the print media blur the fine line between paid-for and editorial content, how are they to retain readers’ trust in their impartiality? asks John Stones

The boundary between advertising and editorial content is being perpetually tested as media owners develop new revenue-generating services and advertisers target consumers desensitised to the cluttered advertising environment with commercial messages closely aligned to editorial product. However, there is always a danger that things will go too far, ultimately undermining the integrity of the editorial product – the very platform media owners and advertisers depend upon, either for their income, or as a means of reaching consumers.

Such issues are being faced by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, with the recent launch of online services that recommend financial products; and by the National Magazine Company (NatMags), with its new magazine Shop!, which purports to feature the best buys on the high street.

Websites Thisismoney – which carries the banner “From the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday & Evening Standard” – and Telegraph.co.uk both offer a service that gives consumers the opportunity to access all their financial services online, prompting them if a better deal may be available through an alternative provider. If the consumer decides to take up the suggestion and purchases a new product on the back of it, the media owner receives commission on the transaction. Moneysupermarket.com, which provides both the services for the media owners, also accepts payment from providers to feature their products as best buys.

The websites – like their corresponding newspapers – also carry editorial about the quality of particular financial products.

But it is the cohabitation of editorial content and sponsored sales under the newspapers’ brands that is causing disquiet among some in the industry. Egg UK marketing director Patrick Muir is concerned that the practice could undermine the integrity of personal finance editorial coverage.

He says: “Relationships should be utterly transparent, especially when the biggest issue facing the financial services industry is consumers’ lack of trust.”

Steve McDowell, outgoing editor of Thisismoney, says: “The issue of editorial integrity is an interesting one. I have had several rows about this and the pressure to make money does impact on the editorial side.”

McDowell accepts that the connection between editorial material and selling products is “perpetually awkward”, but claims that Thisismoney does not itself recommend products, merely providing consumers with the opportunity to buy products if they wish.

Telegraph.co.uk operations director Tim Faircliff is unconcerned about providers paying to be featured on the site’s recommendation tables. “People have to accept that there is a sales element,” he says, “but I wouldn’t deny there is a danger to the brand.”

He rejects the idea that the service undermines the site’s appeal to advertisers, suggesting that it is in fact designed to cater for their needs, by encouraging repeat visits: “The motive is to develop stickiness for the Telegraph website and help attract advertising.”

Observers are divided over the benefits or otherwise for consumers. PHD executive strategy director Louise Jones says such recommendation services are getting much more sophisticated, and link-ups such these are a hint of the future. Carat strategy director Kate Rowlinson, on the other hand, maintains that consumers are not as aware as they should be of the commercial considerations at play.

Generally, media buyers welcome developments that lead to new and integrated relationships between advertising and editorial content, but they agree that transparency is paramount when it comes to the consumer.

The “Best buy” format, which causes the spotlight to be shone on editorial integrity with an especially intense glare, is also the primary feature of Shop!, published by NatMags as a free supplement with Company magazine on August 8. It features mainly best-buy tables of high street fashion goods.

NatMags managing director Duncan Edwards says there is no link between those products featured and advertising, adding that a strict demarcation between editorial and advertising is fundamental to the integrity of NatMags as a publisher. Edwards says: “If Shop! is a successful consumer proposal, it will as a consequence also be a successful advertising proposition.” He makes it clear that there is no editorial bias, adding that an ad for a product is unlikely to coincide with that product being featured as an editorially selected best buy.

Simon Kippin, publishing director of Condé Nast’s Glamour magazine, warns that it is essential to maintain the barrier between editorial and advertising when it comes to best buys: “Accepting money to make recommendations is a terrible thing to do. You strangle the goose that lays the golden egg both for readers and advertisers.”

The relationship between editorial and advertising is generally left up to the publishing company concerned in print media, but the Independent Television Commission has strict rules regulating advertisers’ involvement in TV programming. Among other things, these ban the inclusion of – or references to – a product or service within a programme in return for payment.

Nicola Townsend, head of client sales at television sales house IDS, says: “We would like to see some relaxation of the rules to bring us into line with other media. The current situation is vastly unfair.”

The boundary between editorial and advertising may be constantly challenged, but – for advertisers and media owners alike – the priority must be not to undermine the integrity of the media vehicle itself.

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