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Advertising Disguised as News

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"The Internet is Advertising Park. We built a wonderful place with amazing technology and thought we could pay for it by keeping advertising safely behind borders where people could look at it and maybe sometimes pet its pretty fur. But the advertising has broken loose now, eating and shitting on everything. These consumervores are clever. Some sneak up on their prey by disguising themselves as real articles."

Advertising has historically come in many forms, but the real challenge for advertisers today is integrating promotion directly into content in a seamless manner. Our special correspondent Tropey McBlatant has more;

There is an innovative new method advertisers are using to get their message across. Rather than placing promotional material in the commercial breaks of a show, they are integrating it directly into the show itself, through a new process known as Advertising Disguised As News by Trope Co.. We talked to its CEO to learn more; "In this process, we have multiple ways of doing it. We can produce promotional content that looks and feels exactly like something you would see on a local newscast, or we can provide scripts and other materials to be used by the broadcaster that gets an advertiser's message across without disrupting the format of the program. Or, we can simply send a representative from the brand to appear on the show, so they can interact with hosts and other personalities." It is expected that this revolutionary process will become more popular as advertisers realize that they can now present a more "in-depth" portrayal of their product or service than what can be done through a traditional commercial.


Often known as "native advertising" or an "advertorial", this is when a media outlet runs or otherwise distributes content that looks like a typical news story discussing that great new drug you've never heard of (or similar), but in reality, is literally just an advertisement written by the company who makes it, poorly disguised to look like editorial content, and often featuring flowery, press release-like language in praise of its advertiser.

In the case of TV examples (sometimes known as "video news releases"), these stories are usually disguised to look as much like a typical local news story as possible, often in the vein of a Could This Happen to You? story with a reporter, B-Roll, Vox Pops with "experts" and "real people" (who will often be paid actors and the like), etc. How such a piece is used depends on the local producer; they may just take bits and pieces from it to use like Stock Footage, wrap it with narration from one of their own anchors, or just air the piece unedited and pretend that the reporter on the video is part of their staff. Sometimes, it may just involve a presenter casually talking about something that ends up being an ad, or a paid segment where representatives from the company appear to talk up their wares.

Laws in some regions, particularly in regards to broadcasting, require advertorials to be properly and clearly disclaimed, or they may be considered payola. Though in some cases, they still might not be. This phenomenon has also spread to the internet, as websites have increasingly published "sponsored content" that, much like video news releases, are presented as being editorial content, but are written or heavily influenced by a third-party to promote a certain product or business.

See also Self Promotion Disguised As News, a similar situation where the advertising involves something that is owned by or associated with the outlet. For In-Universe uses of online versions of this trope, take a gander at Clickbait Gag.


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    Live-Action TV 
  • This is the modus operandi of the locally-produced, daytime lifestyle shows seen on some TV stations in the U.S., in which local businesses pay to have their employees or spokesperson appear as "guests" to plug their products in barely-disguised Infomercial segments. These shows are almost always produced by a station's creative services or sales department and kept separated from their actual news departments. Examples include the Ur-Example that is literally called Daytime (produced by Tampa's Nexstar-owned NBC affiliate WFLA. Some of their other stations, especially those owned by predecessors Media General and LIN, air similar shows), The Morning Blend (used by the now Scripps-owned Journal Broadcast Group stations; Scripps' ABC station WFTS in Tampa recently launched its own version to compete with Daytime), WKBW's AM Buffalo (they're also owned by Scripps, but this program was carried over from its Granite ownership), and Meredith's syndicated Better, which could have local cut-ins and co-brandings of this nature, a la Evening Magazine.
  • The morning talk shows aired by Australia's major television networks, specifically The Morning Show, Today Extra, and Studio Ten, similarly feature segments devoted to advertorial content.
  • This one for OnStar's remote vehicle slowdown feature carries all the hallmarks of a video news release.
  • One of the most infamous political examples in the United States came in 2004 when multiple TV stations aired video news releases from the U.S. government that were produced and anchored by an apparent Washington reporter named Karen Ryan, which pushed propaganda for Medicare and the country's education system without any indication of its true source. The General Accounting Office did point out that it's illegal to use federal funds for "publicity or propaganda purposes" without the permission of Congress.
  • The Philippines magazine programme Rated K is infamous for this, shoehorning advertorials for dietary supplements of questionable efficacy, or beauty products, into episodes pertaining to a specific theme, complete with liberal use of adverbs "umano" (Tagalog for "allegedly") or "daw" (apparently), along with the usual testimonials from people who, umano, benefited from the products. Don't be surprised if an advert for the supplement shows up immediately during the commercial break. The evening news programme TV Patrol egregiously played this straight as well, often weaving it into Kim Atienza's trivia segments.
  • The morning show (yes, the actual morning show, not an advertorial daytime show as mentioned earlier) on Fox-owned station WFLD in Chicago aired an remote interview with Shari Belafonte which ended up being an ad for a diet pill. It was disclosed, briefly.
  • The most literal example comes from infomercials that mimic the look and feel of a news interview show. Larry King Live is a popular target; in fact, King himself was tapped to do an infomercial just like that (blatantly labeled in program guides as Larry King Special Report) for a joint medication.
  • Media Watch increasingly highlights how newspapers, becoming increasingly desperate for advertising revenue, are printing what are basically commercials that look like editorial content. The same goes for when evening newscasts do segments that turn out to be advertising.
  • There are some stations that actually present ads for local car dealers live as stories during weekend morning newscasts.
  • In China, some ads ran what looked like a urgent news report, saying that the "Sibuxiang Beast," a mythical creature, was real, and attacking civilians in a city. Much like The War of the Worlds broadcast, people freaked out, and the ad maker was fined.
  • Brand Power and MediFacts are marketing groups that run ads that have the feel of news-bytes, completely with a newsy-sounding musical opening. Another more recent one called Local Steals and Deals follows a similar format, skipping the newsy-sounding opening but nevertheless slipping itself into ad-breaks on newscasts and mimicking the feel of a news report.
  • After entering into a $250 million-dollar advertising and "integration" deal with the daily fantasy sports website DraftKings over the summer of 2015, practically every ESPN studio program was shoehorning in plugs for it in some way or another. Even worse? ESPN writer Matthew Berry pretty much turned his online fantasy sports column into a giant ad for DraftKings. In a follow-up, he did include a disclosure ... which ended being more praise for the site. In the midst of growing controversy over the legality of DFS, the endless ads and ESPN plugs started to die down, and ESPN later backed out of the deal.
    • By the 2020's, when sports betting began to see wider legalization in the United States and Canada, bookmakers (including the aforementioned DraftKings and its competitor, FanDuel) began to invade sports broadcasts and programs with similarly-sponsored segments focusing on sports news from a betting perspective, inevitably containing odds and enforced plugs from their sponsor.
  • Kelly Rowland was interviewed by WGN's morning show, but when confronted with questions about Beyoncé's Lemonade, she abruptly changed the topic and began to briefly talk up her partnership with Claritin and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Considering there was a small box of Claritin right next to her, patiently awaiting its acknowledgement, it seemed to be the real point of the interview.
  • The Las Vegas version of the aforementioned Morning Blend was notably duped by the satirical reality series Nathan for You in 2015, when it aired a bizarre paid interview with the creator of a new exercise program book called The Movement, which involves moving boxes. It was inspired by his volunteer work with jungle children, who are children who live in the jungle.
  • Discussed in an episode of Last Week Tonight — which similarly duped multiple local daytime shows into airing paid segments for a fake sexual improvement blanket called the "Venus Veil".
  • In December 2017, the FCC proposed a $13.3 million fine against Sinclair Broadcast Group for having aired content paid for by the Huntsman Cancer Institute without disclosure.
  • In May 2020, multiple stations aired a blatant PR piece by Amazon to discuss its responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Fast food restaurants and snack food companies have figured out a nice little hack to get free advertising on local newscasts: make a new, limited-time product with a gimmicky flavor, issue press releases about it, then sit back and watch as newscasts add it as one of their lighthearted "kicker" stories at the end of the show. Wacky new flavors of Oreos or Lays potato chips or oddball items briefly offered at KFC, Burger King or Dunkin Donuts are very frequent culprits.

    Print Media 
  • Fashion and lifestyle magazines published in the United States (like Lucky, Cosmo, Seventeen, etc...) freely run advertisements that at first glance appear to be one-page features. These advertorials have titles like "10 Essential Items for Your Summer Wardrobe," "Fall In Love With Your Hair This Holiday Season," or "5 Dieting Tricks That Will Blow Your Mind." Some even take the form of interviews with average women (mothers, beauty bloggers, etc...) who only want to talk about the product in question. This "branded content" is required to have a text disclaimed somewhere on the page declaring that it's not an unbiased editorial, usually something along the lines of "This is a Paid Advertisement" or "Promotional Feature" (but only in tiny print at the very bottom of the page.) This can sometimes be recognised if the advertorial's layout or art style appears inconsistent with the magazine or periodical's layout.
  • A similar example can be found in an advertorial made by Nintendo in an attempt to rebuke then-rival Sega's blast processing marketing angle for the Sega Genesis. While the advertorial piece did make some valid points, at least some of the claims were flawed to say the least. And unless you're an impressionable youth of the time, a discerning reader could very much tell that the two-page piece is nothing more than a paid ad on behalf of the Big N.
  • The now-discontinued Yummy magazines in the Philippines, which are basically periodical cookbooks, often featured recipes that were actually ads for certain food products. Said products (and usually other products made by the same company) were always ingredients in these "bonus" recipes.

  • In a variant, some of the earliest Visual Kei bands attained their promotion and first media breaks by setting up impromptu events and inviting news cameramen or entertainment reporters to film the results, usually without everyone from the news organization knowing the event was staged. One of the most famous was X Japan's ORGASM at YASHIRO NOODLE SHOP which consisted of the band performing their single "Orgasm" in a crowded noodle shop and then proceeding to annoy the customers and break the place. This form of promotion was immediately looked down upon by the rest of the Japanese metal community at the time (which considered it being an Attention Whore) and created a split between Japanese Heavy Metal and "Visual Kei" that would not be reconciled until Turn of the Millennium, despite that Visual Kei artists were playing Heavy Metal. It also backfired severely when tried (by the same band) in a more traditional way to promote on American news programs in 2010-11, also because of the increased obvious staging and PR involvement in the US media appearances, which only appealed to fans.

  • The closest equivalent in music radio is the practice of "payola", where record labels had radio stations give airplay to specific songs in exchange for some sort of compensation. Payola was a controversial practice and has largely been replaced by "pay-for-play", which abides by modern U.S. broadcast laws with stations airing disclaimers announcing that songs have been paid for. Also, pay-for-play spins of songs can't count for chart reporting.
  • In 1999, the aforementioned Media Watch exposed that on-air personalities on a talk radio station in Sydney had been endorsing various companies without disclosure. In one case, a host was suddenly praising banks that they had previously criticized for their excessive fees.
  • One radio advertisement presented itself initially as a weather report, except that with increasing frequency throughout the "report" about an upcoming summer heatwave, the announcer kept muttering the name of a local HVAC service, until at the end it finally outright directed listeners to the company website.

    Web Original 
  • You won't believe what trope that online articles colloquially known as "Clickbait" fall under... In fact, even before "clickbait" and "fake news" were common terms, there had been banner ads leading to fake news articles (often for things such as açaí berries as dietary supplements), aping the style of local news websites, and featuring logos of TV shows and networks that provided "endorsements" of them.
  • Discussed in Cracked's "7 Warning Signs Of Advertising Disguised As Articles", where Luke McKinney dissects a piece of ad about "bulletproof coffee" showing all of the bullcrap associated with it.
  • Taboola is a service that provides links at the end of pages on news websites, ranging from actual links to other articles to nonsensical clickbait such as "Wardrobe Malfunctions That Actually Made It Into Films" (real example) to outright advertising, all mixed together in one big stew. Taboola isn't the only chumbox ad provider, as there's another one called "Outbrain" and, sometimes, they're on the same webpage.
  • While the opening of new businesses within a local area is newsworthy, articles about them can fall victim to this. One such is this here, which talks about four new businesses opening in a shopping center, but also unnecessarily copies advertising patter like talking about how a particular company is a "...leader in sleep innovation, improves lives by individualizing sleep experiences with a variety of mattresses, bases and bedding essentials."
  • Certain Internet banner ads mimic the feel of news alerts, but upon being clicked on turn out to take the user to a page hawking something like herbal supplements or an overpriced flashlight.
  • Many modern articles about common computer issues (such as low storage or driver difficulties) or how to do certain tricks (such as recording the screen, transcribing PDFs or partitioning one's hard drive) are barely-disguised plugs for whatever company is hosting the article. More often than not they would put up such articles in a list format, where they ultimately plug their own product over other more legitimate alternatives.

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