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IN August this year, an industry watchdog publicly rebuked a prominent daily for carrying a favourable article on a product alongside an advertisement of it. The watchdog ruled that placing the article on the same page as the ad amounted to making the "advertisement feature" appear like a genuine news article. The newspaper apologised and the advertiser withdrew the ad constructed in the form of an advertorial.
This happened in the UK, the newspaper in question was the London-based The Daily Express and the watchdog was the Advertising Standards Authority of the UK.
In India, the story plays out differently. Advertorials, or advertisements presented as editorials, have become commonplace among several publications. There have been various reports, complaints and protests, in the past, on the increasing intrusion of advertising into the editorial space but to no avail. Paid political reporting has been part of this growing menace and to this end, there was no surprising element in the recent expose by the English daily, The Hindu, that Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashokrao Chavan may have spent several crores of rupees on planting adulatory stories on himself across newspapers, just before the recently concluded Assembly elections in the state.
the politics of content
"It has, indeed, been happening for long. The only new thing this time was that we managed to name the entities involved in such deals," says P. Sainath, the veteran journalist whose expose appeared in the Chennai-based newspaper last week. A Magsaysay award winner, Sainath has been writing about "paid content" for sometime now. His latest reports—he got access to the official records of Chavan's publicity spends during the Assembly elections and compared them with the amount of extensive "favourable" coverage he got across various local publications, including biggies such as Lokmat and the Maharashtra Times—has raised questions about who paid for this "flood of news" and if it was, indeed, paid for, why was it not accounted for both by Chavan and the publications.