Nothing new in the idea of advertorial except that, to be fair, the newspaper industry has always been a little prickly about the practice. Essentially giving an individual or organisation favourable press coverage because they pay you to do so seems somehow corrupt and disingenuous. And editors have always been under pressure to give that good press coverage to paying customers.
The advertorial is overt - it usually contains the words 'advertising feature' across the top of the page distinguishing it from the run-of-paper. Sometimes the layout or typeface was different. However the copy was written by journalists rather than the ad agency's copywriters with the aim of making it seem like part of the paper's news coverage.
In the lifestyle sector advertorial is the dominant form of coverage. Other than photographs of events, magazines such as Yorkshire Life offer editorial coverage on the back of advertising. This is sometimes less overt than the 'advertising feature' approach preferred by newspapers but few are fooled - the glowing editorial portrait of a given hotel, restaurant or kitchen company is accompanied by a prominent advertisement from said company.
It seems, however, that the game has moved on - perhaps reflecting the challenges facing newspapers. There are suggestions that favourable coverage is simply purchased. The European Union paid the London Evening Standard £65,000 for an editorial item "in association with" the EU and entitled 'the European Debate'. It was, unremarkably, very supportive of the EU.
If you want to check out the piece - you can read it here. Definitely a piece of advertorial in my opinion.
Mark Reckless MP complained to the Advertising Standards Authority saying the the coverage wasn't clearly marked as advertising in accordance with the ASA's Code. They have responded saying 'nothing to do with us guv':
"In order to establish whether the material concerned was within our remit to investigate, we contacted the Evening Standard for further information. The Evening Standard has confirmed that they had complete control over the content of this piece. In order for material such as this to be considered an ad, and therefore subject to the CAP Code, a company or organisation must both pay for the material to appear in a publication, and also have control over the editorial content of the piece. Given that, in this instance, the European Union did not have any control over the content, it was editorial material rather than a marketing communication and as such, was not required to be labelled as an ad feature. We therefore cannot take any action on your complaint, but if you would like to pursue the matter you may wish to contact the Evening Standard directly with your concerns."
Somehow I doubt that the ASA undertook a proper investigation. We do know that the European Commission paid £65,000 for the item so it already smells a funny colour. We also know that the EU was proud of the impact its payment achieved - as Mark Wallace at Conservative Home discovered:
In their reply they even boasted of the “value for money” in reaching 2.6m people with their political message.
An almost identical piece - same headlines, same authors, same images, same quotes - appeared in The Independent suggesting that the ASA is wrong to simply take the Evening Standard's word that they had complete editorial control. Unless The Independent didn't have that control (or worse still just plagiarised the Standard piece).
It seems to me that, unless the ASA is prepared to act over such abuse of its code, the EU can - and will - continue to use tax money to buy editorial coverage favourable to its interests. It's bad enough that the EU pays over millions to sock-puppets who happily spin its story but directly buying favourable press coverage!