Earlier this month, prominent online publisher BuzzFeed denied accusations that it had deleted posts critical of its advertisers at the request of those advertisers.
However, an internal BuzzFeed investigation has determined that it did indeed succumb to advertiser pressure on several occasions.
As reported by The New York Times, three posts critical of Microsoft, Pepsi and a Unilever brand were “pulled after an editor fielded a complaint from a business-side BuzzFeed staff member who worked with a brand mentioned in the piece.”
According to the Times, BuzzFeed reviewed more than 1,000 posts that were deleted, so the three it admits were deleted due to advertiser pressure represent a tiny fraction of all deleted posts.
Even so, other deletions have raised questions about potential conflict, demonstrating the fact that when publishers delete posts critical of advertisers, it doesn’t really matter why they were deleted.
The native advertising conundrum
While what happened at BuzzFeed could theoretically happen at any ad-supported publisher, the BuzzFeed situation highlights the challenges associated with native advertising in particular.
After all, in native ad deals, advertisers essentially pay publishers to write nice things about them so there is a certain unstated expectation that they won’t also write bad things about them. Despite the notion of a firewall between ad sales and editorial, it would be silly for a publisher to publish a post on behalf of a company only to criticize it the next day.
Ironically, that’s essentially what happened with a BuzzFeed post titled These Brands Are Going To Bombard Your Twitter Feed on Super Bowl Sunday. Pepsi was one of the brands targeted for criticism in the post, but BuzzFeed was working with Pepsi during the Super Bowl to promote its content.
Once BuzzFeed realized what it had done, the post was deleted within hours.
Contrast this dynamic with, say, ads purchased through exchanges. Most large advertisers buying significant media through exchanges don’t even know where their ads are appearing.
They’re typically targeting audiences, not websites. While they will obviously have some expectations around the quality of those sites, they will probably have few expectations around specific content.
The bottom line is that when publishers and advertisers literally jump into bed together behavior changes, whether due to pressure or a “I know who pays my bills” dynamic. Any publisher that believes otherwise isn’t being honest with itself and its audience.