In a recent routine monitoring case, NAD reviewed an article in Hello! Magazine to determine if it constituted advertising for the brand and the products promoted in the piece. The article is about Reese Witherspoon’s use of a Biossance eye cream product, which it describes as "perfect to travel with, and it instantly firms, lifts, and smooths the look of skin." The article contains affiliate links so that purchases of the eye cream and other Biossance skincare products would (or did) generate revenue for the publication. If the article constituted advertising, NAD would have been concerned about its editorial format, its product claims, and its lack of clear disclosure about the nature of the relationship between Biossance and Witherspoon, its “brand ambassador” (as noted in the article).
To determine whether the article constitutes advertising, NAD applied the Buzzfeed factors and found that it didn’t: the brand didn’t pay for the content, influence what was said about the products, nor promote the article. Further, the products at issue were chosen by the editorial staff without the input of the business staff: there was separation of church and state. Also, the article was not changed after affiliate links were added. Accordingly, NAD determined that the article was not a “paid commercial message,” and therefore not “national advertising” for purposes of NAD jurisdiction.
Most interesting here is the discussion of the magazine’s economic motivation: while Hello! Magazine, apparently, was not motivated to choose the particular products for the article by their potential to generate affiliate revenue, it acknowledged that it was motivated by its desire to drive traffic to the site in order to generate revenue from programmatic advertising based on the content. In other words, writing about Biossance gave the magazine a hook for writing about (and showing pictures of) Reese Witherspoon, and thereby boost traffic to the site. By boosting traffic, Hello! Magazine could earn more from advertisers.
Writing content that attracts readers in order to attract advertisers is, of course, nothing new. That’s what keeps many publications in business. What may be new, though, is NAD’s examination of the practice through the lens of the Buzzfeed factors. Taking a step back to consider the different types of economic motivations at issue is interesting, philosophically: if generating affiliate revenue is its main motivation, a publication may be incentivized to adjust its editorial content to maximize the potential for products sales. It will share a motivation with the brand: selling product. Therefore, when affiliate links drive editorial choices, the publisher is acting more like advertiser and the content may be considered "advertising." By contrast, if the publication’s economic motivation is based on maximizing programmatic advertising dollars (i.e., not brand-selected media buys, such as an adjacency for a specific piece of content), its incentive is a little different: it needs to make the article itself sexy to get clicks, not necessarily to promote the brands or the specific products. Celebrities attract eyeballs and eyeballs generate ad revenue.
Interestingly, the article now says “Advertisement” at the top.
NAD/CARU Case Reports, Report #7174 (April 2023)