An environmental group has filed an official complaint over ad features run by some newspapers in Canada’s largest media chain, saying they blur the lines between journalism and advertising.
The Sierra Club of Canada alleges in its complaint to Advertising Standards Canada that Canwest tried to disguise the fact that Shell Canada paid for articles on the oilsands that ran in several of the chain’s major dailies.
“They should be marked clearly that they are advertising,” Sierra Club director John Bennett said Thursday. “They appear to be newspaper stories.”
Stories paid for by advertisers are common in newspapers and normally appear under the heading “advertising features.”
The Canwest series, headlined New Energy Future, was entitled “a special information feature, in partnership with Shell Canada.” That phrase is in print three millimetres high.
The stories describe Shell’s environmental work and profile Shell employees. “Myth Buster” sidebars portray Shell’s oilsands operations positively.
Print versions of the stories appeared in news sections of the papers and were presented in newspaper format, with a different look than the paper’s regular pages. The online versions, which are still posted, look almost identical to staff-written news stories and show up under news searches.
After Bennett read one of them, he contacted the Ottawa Citizen to complain that the article presented only one side of the oilsands issue.
He was told the story was, in fact, an ad.
“I didn’t know what (special information feature) meant,” Bennett said. “Apparently, it means paid ad.”
Canwest communications director Phyllise Gelfand said the stories were printed in a different typeface and laid out in a different style than the rest of the paper. Shell’s “partnership” was referred to at the top of the page.
“That’s enough,” she said. “The average reader would notice the difference.”
Gelfand hadn’t seen the online versions and couldn’t comment on their much closer resemblance to news stories.
Shell spokesman Phil Vircoe said the ads were an honest attempt to get the company’s message out.
“Our intent is to inform people, not mislead,” he said. “Using the newspaper and developing this partnership with Canwest is one way to do that.”
He said he believes that most readers would be able to discern that the stories were paid content.
The Sierra Club’s complaint names the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen, the Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald and the Vancouver Sun.
The same pieces appeared in Thursday’s Toronto Star.
In the Star, the entire six-part series is described as a special information feature, but the stories are grouped together in their own section of the paper and printed on different coloured paper.
The Sierra Club is considering adding the Star to its complaint, said spokesman Michael Bernard.
No one at the Star was immediately available to comment.
The Canadian advertising code forbids disguising ads. “No advertisement shall be presented in a format or style which conceals its commercial intent,” it reads.
In fact, immediately following the Shell story in the Feb. 6 Edmonton Journal is an ad feature clearly labelled as such.
But publishers are increasingly looking for ways to get around that division, said Chris Waddell, director of the Carleton University School of Journalism.
“The normal standards that would apply would be to identify it clearly as advertising rather than as editorial content,” he said. “But you can see over the years, both in newspapers and magazines, an attempt being made to make the differences look as insignificant as possible.”
Janet Feasby of Advertising Standards Canada says it is receiving more complaints lately about media smudging the line between news and ads.
“We do get complaints from consumers that a special supplement, in their view, should have mentioned that it’s an ad.”
Readers approach news stories differently than ads, Waddell said, and that’s what advertisers count on for their message.
“News content must have some credibility that ad content doesn’t, so that’s why you try to make it look like news copy.”
Feasby said an advertiser has 10 days to respond after a complaint is laid. If it is decided the response doesn’t resolve an issue under the advertising standards code, the complaint is adjudicated by a council of industry and public members. The whole process takes 20 to 30 days.
The group can force the removal of an ad, but it has no power to impose fines or other sanctions.