Advertisement is part of the content

After a hiatus of two weeks, the Reader's Corner is back with a highly debated issue that relates very closely to journalism and newspapers. In many cases, the ethics and guidelines surrounding our vocation are quite simple. If they are not simple however, they are largely agreed upon at least, even though practice may differ from time to time. Some might believe them, some may only pay lip service, but no one would argue otherwise. After all you would be hard pressed to find a journalist that argues in favor of plagiarism, unfounded bias or hate speech. Sure, as I said they might act against such principles but when asked, they would agree to the necessity and validity of such principles and guidelines.

Today's subject however continues to be divisive. One of the main sources of income for the newspapers comes from advertisements placed on their pages every day. It is even more prevalent on news websites as ads are the main source of income apart from subscription-based versions. Similarly, from TV channels to cinemas, ads are present in many forms of multimedia. It is impossible to escape, and they became more invasive as the public grows countermeasures for it. Web ads and adblockers were one such example. Collecting user information is another. But ads are everywhere, looking like what cyberpunk narratives are so fond of.

Instead, let's continue in the confines of journalism. Depending on the newspaper, ads cover quite a sizeable portion of every day's issue, from full-page ads to small boxes. If we are to compare the most prevalent type of articles to ad space, sometimes ads even win. It is clear that ads are one of the major parts of a daily newspaper and so, it should be no surprise that they get their share of criticism from readers.

As I am also fulfilling the role of ombudsmen for our sister newspaper Sabah, I received several complaints on an ad placed in its July 11 issue last month. The ad was for a hotel, and it announced a special campaign for the July 15 Democracy and National Unity Day. It had several discounts and complimentary offers, but as it is not relevant to the discussion, let us skip that.

After this ad was published in the newspaper, several veterans and people close to those who lost their lives during the coup attempt contacted me and expressed their hurt. They thought that using a national tragedy and triumph along with the pain people had to suffer was cheapening all of those concepts. Their complaint was not about the actual news coverage of the coup attempt or the coverage of its anniversaries, but it was about using it to promote holidays.

No editorial oversight

I will repeat what I said to them. In almost all cases, ads are not prepared by newspapers themselves. Editors and designers merely place the visual sent to them by the company placing the advertisement. Both photo choices along with accompanying texts are prepared by the brand or the advertisement agency they hire for this purpose. However, this does not absolve the newspaper from all responsibility. After all, everything, from the headline to the last dot, represents the newspaper itself. Even if ads do not make newspapers liable in the eyes of the law, it makes them liable in terms of representation and credibility.

In the media world, whether media companies have the right to pick and choose advertisements is a highly debated topic. There are numerous sides to this. Some argue that advertisements should not be touched apart from cases of racism, discrimination, hate speech or promoting terrorism.

I however, disagree with that view. Although inspecting ads are not counted amongst my duties, I think that they should also be considered as part of the content in the newspaper, instead of separate entities. In other words, same ethical standards for news articles and columns should also be applied to advertisements as well.

Some may argue that as the share of ads lessens every day for print media, the chance to be picky about them is over. But this is purely an opportunistic view and should not be taken into consideration if we are to argue on the ethics of the issue.

Perhaps you can remember a recent con dubbed "Çiftlik Bank" that took place in Turkey. It managed to swindle quite a sizeable amount of money from unsuspecting victims. One of the most common reasons these victims were cheated out of money might interest you. When asked how they could trust such a scheme that screamed pyramid structure, you heard that they saw its ads in major media sources, such as TV channels. Back in our "Media asleep at the wheel" Reader's Corner article that was published on March 26, we said:

"Throughout the previous year, Çiftlik Bank had a major presence in Turkish media, both in news articles and in advertisements. It was talked about on TV shows, had advertisements running in prime time slots of several channels and launched a major campaign on social media. Not to mention the word of mouth effects in the daily lives of the people involved in the scheme either as unknowing victims or willing perpetrators."

Buying credibility

Another insight from that article is also important because it shows the unethical and unorthodox methods of advertisement usage by brands. In this case, Sabah daily reported on the Çiftlik Bank scheme unlike many of the competitors, months before legal action. The results were:

"On the other hand, we received numerous insults and threats from those who did not give their name or used fake addresses and accounts. Çiftlik Bank tried every method to silence us, including placing an advertisement, which unfortunately becomes effective in Turkish media from time to time. But the Sabah daily continued to investigate and report on the scheme, undeterred by pressure, defamation and threats."

It seems that advertisements even manage to usurp the position of editor-in-chief, determining the editorial approach of a newspaper given the right circumstances. And we are still arguing over whether they could be subjected to editorial oversight.

There is another important facet of this discussion we seem to forget. Despite their waning popularity, newspapers still remain a credible source of information. That credibility is also lent to the ads they publish. After all, brands that buy ad space do it not just for the exposure of a wide reader base but also for the credibility the newspapers possess. Having your advertisement in a national or international news source is a milestone. We should treat it as such as far as their content goes. After all, just as those ads share our credibility, we in turn also share their credibility.

I am aware this article is far from being the conclusive argument that could sway the debate one way or another. But with voices like this, we can add to the chorus that says ads are part of the content, and it is high time we start to act like it. After all, readers seem to think so when it comes to ads that objectify men or women, ads that cheapen the values of a nation or ads that pave the way for fraudulent practices. And I believe that the saying that the customer is always right applies here as well.

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