Does Advertising Guide Content?

This post started as a collection of thoughts on the AP’s decisions around how they want their content handled on the web. Somehow this lead me to thinking about the FTC’s proposal for guidelines about full disclosure.

But as I was writing it, I had this persistent itch at the back of my mind: memories of some of the things I was involved in when I was in the computer trade press where the Chinese Wall between editorial and advertising bled over. 

The first occurred when I was working on a review of a class of desktop software. I’m going to leave it pretty vague since many of the people involved are still in the business. This was well over a decade ago, so don’t try to go figuring out which magazine or what the companies were. We did the testing in our lab based on a set of criteria (speed, ease of use, and so on) and I wrote up the article. Company A won the review, mostly based on the fact that it supported a fairly complete implementation of the relevant standards and was fast. I can still recall being called into an editor’s office and having him help me with my conclusions until company B won based on ease of use. Post facto, I found out that there was some strange advertising thing linked to the conclusion that helped guide the result. Nothing too obviously nefarious, but it was my first experience with the idea that sometimes the product I felt really was the best doesn’t necessarily win. Perhaps I’d lead a sheltered life until then.

The second occurred when I was asked to review UPSes. This was fascinating because we weren’t reviewing those little UPSes that you have in your basement at home: we were reviewing UPSes that could deliver 10+ kVA – enough to power a dozen or more computers for quite some time. The memories of this review stand out because it wasn’t about the software that they ran or anything that I had any expertise in: we called in a commercial electrician to set up a test bed with a mixture of resistive (light bulbs) and variable loads (power supplies) and a variety of volt meters and so on, then we practiced cutting the power over and over, watching how long it took for the units to switch over, how long they could run, how quickly they recharged to full capacity and so on. After years of reviewing shrink-wrapped software and laptops, it was refreshing to work with something that I could walk up to and kick without worrying about doing significant damage. Since this review, by the way, I’ve always bought APC UPSes. Post facto, I found out that we’d done the review because UPS vendors were good advertisers and we never wrote about them.

All of which is to say that when the reader isn’t the one paying for the content (which is the case with most newspapers and magazines), there always exists the opportunity for the insertion of other interests and biases.