The missing question in the Indian Express-flyover imbroglio

There is one question that is most pertinent about the Uttar Pradesh – Indian Express advertisement imbroglio.

But, before I come to that, a quick recap.

The Indian Express Group had a multi-edition splash of an ad campaign to promote Uttar Pradesh and its Chief Minister, on September 12, 2021.

How splashy? All editions of Financial Express and almost all editions of The Sunday Express, Indian Express’s Sunday edition. 3 pages in all these newspapers. It’s a powerful statement of how much money the State can lavish upon telling its own success story to not just the potential voters in that State, but to all of India.

Here is a snapshot of the ad campaign – I have used the Kolkata edition of Indian Express and Financial Express to point out the irony.

Why would one State’s Chief Minister want to impress all of India when his political future hinges only on his own State’s voters? That question, and my resultant conjecture, is irrelevant to this post, so let me move on.

Of the 3 pages, the first one—that was also the first page of the newspaper with the masthead right on top of the Chief Minister’s head—had the image of a giant Chief Minister waving towards imaginary millions even as tiny versions of a city were shown below. This included a flyover and adjacent to it, what looks like an oil refinery, and 2 engineers pointing towards it.

Unfortunately for the Chief Minister, the flyover turns out to be a real, existing one from Kolkata, a State that recently defeated the ruling party at the Center, and the one that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh belongs to.

While this may seem politically interesting, from a pure advertising point of view, this is an inadvertent blunder. Someone within the team that put together the copy and visuals for these advertisements searched for flyover photos, did not consider the symbolism of putting an actual flyover from a State that is at odds with the party and the man who is paying for the advertisement and it went to print without adequate diligence check by both parties involved – the client (Uttar Pradesh) and the agency that produced the material.

For instance, imagine a print ad in The Times of India by Pepsi where a shop in the background has the Coca-Cola signboard. That’s the kind of impact we are talking about.

That ends the recap.

Now, let us come to the real question.

So, there is a gaffe. People have figured it out. The ads are being ridiculed left, right and center. What would usually happen in the Pepsi example I gave above?

These kinds of errors are fairly serious given that for brands, the brand is everything. Usually, the brand would fire the agency, or at least seek that the person/team involved in the production of such an ad be fired, removed from that particular account, and so on. It depends on how much the brand is paying the agency and how much the agency can push back but usually heads roll, at least to showcase visible signs of ‘taking responsibility’.

What happened in the case of the Uttar Pradesh ad? Did the agency take responsibility? No. Who did? In the Pepsi example, what happened is akin to The Times of India taking responsibility.

The media in which the advertisement was published took responsibility. And this is where things get very, very murky.

Why? Because the newspaper did not take responsibility as a ‘media channel’. It took responsibility on behalf of its marketing department that produced the advertisement.

Here, many people have taken great pains to explain the difference between an advertisement and an advertorial. While there are operational differences between the two, both are fundamentally just paid advertisements. The bottomline in both is this, simply: the client pays money and gets to say whatever they want without anyone from the media channel questioning those claims.

If we were to get pedantic about advertisements vs. advertorials, observe the fact that pages 2 and 3 have the word ‘advertorial’ on top, while the front page (first-page of the ad) does not have this disclaimer. So, technically, that would make the first page an advertisement, and not an advertorial.

The reason why some semblance of a difference exists between the two is even murkier: advertisements are supposed to be obviously different and distinguishable as paid-for, while advertorials are supposed to be mimicking the editorial content of the newspaper/publication.

What does that mean, for the uninitiated? In crude terms, advertorials are intended to fool the reader to believe that it is actually news that has gone through some journalistic standards of questioning and verification and not merely something that client gets to say verbatim by paying a certain amount of money. To help this endeavour, the disclosure that it is advertisement is concealed under the word ‘Advertorial’ that is usually added in the advertisement even as the content, usually, uses a font and column structure that is very similar to the rest of the page that is full of news.

The next question is about who creates these advertorials that are so ridiculously obviously intended to fool the readers?

Advertorials are usually created by the client, through their advertising agency.

Here is an example.

So, you could understand from this that the client is not confident that the content about their brand may make it organically into the news section and hence, is taking the paid-for advertisement (euphemistically called ‘advertorial’) route to get to say whatever they want, verbatim.

In the online space, this is euphemistically called ‘native advertising’.

On TV and movies, this is euphemistically called ‘brand placement’.

So many euphemisms in the service of fooling the reader/audience, huh? The crux is the same no matter what the media: to shift the responsibility of finding the difference between editorial content (that has gone through journalistic rigour) and paid-for advertisements to the reader/audience by making it reasonably difficult to figure it out. In other words, they all expect readers and audiences to be alert and question what could be actual news/scripted content and what is being said because a brand paid them money to do so.

But, here is where things get even murkier.

It turns out that it is not just the brand and the ad agency that want you to believe a piece of paid-for advertisement by making it really, really, really similar to the news. The media channel too wants you to overlook the fact that something you are reading is paid-for and has not gone through any journalistic rigour.

So, the owners of the media channel pitch their services to brands and clients to win advertising money. This pitch doesn’t merely talk about the kind of audiences the client/brand can reach if they advertise – they also extend to creating the advertisement itself, snatching the role traditionally held by advertising agencies.

Almost every single media channel does this, not just Indian Express.

At The New York Times, this is called ‘T Brand’ and they promise that ‘no self-respecting journalist who works for the Times has been harme…’ sorry, ‘involved in parroting something for a paying client’.

At the Times Group, this is called in many names. Right now, it is called Brand Capital and this also involves the Times Group taking a stake in the company that wants to advertise and give them advertising content and space in return.

In most cases, as the Times Group has come to redefine the lack of border between editorial and advertising, the disclaimer about something being paid for by the client is not appended close to the piece of advertising/advertorial content but in places where the reader cannot easily decipher it, while the media can claim, “But we have mentioned it there, no?”. Observe the ‘advertorial and promotional feature’ addition in the masthead, and not next to the news about a client, Vakrangee!

Sometimes, the Times Group gets slightly more ethical and goes the extra mile to call out the disclaimer, ‘Consumer Connect Initiative’, while it is actually ‘Connecting consumers and paying brands through this initiative where we create the content and… reader beware!’.

In publications like India Today, Business Today, and Week, the disclaimer is so creatively hidden inside phrases that do not mean, “This is a paid-for content created by us, the media that otherwise questions these clients relentlessly. Please believe it at your own discretion”. They usually have something like ‘Focus Feature’, as if that explains things perfectly.

In Hindustan Times, it is called ‘Media Marketing Initiative’.

The Hindustan Times Group even takes extra initiative by having the newspaper’s editor write a piece on behalf of the paying client on the very first page while not adding any disclaimer whatsoever!

In Jagran, entire 2-page spread advertisements are created in the same font and column spacing as the rest of the newspaper, and a tiny ‘media marketing initiative’ is added at the very bottom. Just observe the dichotomy – the 2-page spread is in Hindi but the disclaimer that it is paid-for advertisement (hardly descriptive of that meaning) is an English phrase written in Hindi! Besides adequately hiding the disclaimer, the publication seems keen on making the disclaimer as incomprehensible as possible to the readers.

In Amar Ujala, it is called ‘media solution initiative’ in English, while the rest of the page/ad is in Hindi. Does it adequately or easily explain that the entire page is an advertisement paid for by the Uttarakhand Government where they get to say anything they want without any question by the media’s editorial division?

In OPEN magazine, it is called ‘Open Avenues’, which could actually mean that this is OPEN magazine’s avenue to earn some revenue.

In Mint, the disclosure is phrased, “Created by Mint Brand Studio’, as if that immediately explains to a reader that Mint lent some of its employees who are not part of the journalistic team to create content for a brand that is entirely paid for by them.

Indian Express, when it owned responsibility for the gaffe involving West Bengal’s flyover in a rah-rah Uttar Pradesh advertisement (euphemistically called ‘advertorial’), greyed the line between who creates the ads and who takes money merely as a media platform.

The question we need to be asking then is this: “Can we trust the media that also writes/creates advertising content for a client about which they also report the news?

If Indian Express was merely an advertising platform where paying clients bring their own pre-created (either internally or by advertising agencies) material, then we can hold the brand/client responsible for any misinformation or disinformation. But when the media channel itself writes this content or assists in creating this advertising content, then things get murky in terms of who is responsible for the misinformation in the content.

If I were to give an example, it would be akin to a brand that manufactures and sells chocolates containing a LOT of sugar also being involved in the manufacture and sales of diabetic medicines.

The company can tell you, of course, “See, while the parent company is one, the companies that manufacture and sell these 2 product lines are entirely different entities. There is no overlap of employees between both companies and we have strict corporate governance rules to separate the two. So, trust us!”

In the media world, this is historically, and euphemistically, called ‘Separation of Church and the State’.

The severe irony here is this: when the separation between Church (religion) and the State (governance) in politics itself is greying, how can we expect such separation in media?

Selling space in the media is one thing. Because here, only the paying client is responsible for the content in the advertisement/advertorial. After all, the media houses cannot survive only through the revenue from the cover price that readers pay. As such, most media are either free or dirt cheap (newspapers). The New York Times has been making rapid strides in turning this equation on its head – more money from paying readers than advertising revenue. That gives the group more leeway to prioritize news and views, and less sway less by advertisers’ diktats or asks.

But also creating content on behalf of a paying client is entirely another that moves the content’s responsibility back to the media (producer) + the paying client (money).

It gets murkier because the same media’s other colleagues are tasked with the unenvious job of writing impartial, well-researched news and editorial views on the same clients. And you would be left wondering, “Hey wait! This publication reports news and offers views about that brand, but also writes ads for the same brand? Wouldn’t the client have a say in trying to reduce the intensity or avoid bad news about their business by using their advertising as a lever?“.

I can fully comprehend the amount of consternation the entire Indian Express Group would have gone through before sharing that apology about them being responsible for the gaffe in the Uttar Pradesh ad. I’m reasonably sure they were cornered by the client to publicly take responsibility, and rightly so since they were the ones involved in creating it anyway.

If, for instance, it was created by advertising agency X, and the agency released a small ad the next day in the same newspaper (besides tweeting it too) about taking responsibility, the whole issue would have hardly made a dent beyond the minor mirth and irony. But it gets a dramatic dimension because of who chose to apologize and hence opening the lid on one of the most open secrets in the business of news, media, and advertising.

We, the readers, are supposed to know all this, and,
– take the advertisements and advertorials with a crater of salt, question them as sharp-eyed consumers
– take the editorial news and views as the truth and form our worldview based on them

Unfortunately, most people in the media and advertising business also know that is so far from the truth. Fortunately (for the paying clients and the media channels), most people outside the media and advertising business either don’t know this or couldn’t care to know all these things.

In this case, whether the ad was created by an agency, or the publication that is releasing it, the ultimate responsibility, the one that should own up any mistake, lies with the one paying for it.

Indian Express’s marketing department is not paying for these ads. Uttar Pradesh Government is.

The client could blame Indian Express publicly, in private, stop all further ads, ask for specific people in the marketing team to be sacked or to be sent to Pluto, etc. But when it comes to taking responsibility, the one that paid for the advertisements needs to own up. But that would also mean demonstrating humility and vulnerability, and politicians generally do not display both.

On the other hand, Indian Express’ motto is ‘Journalism of courage’, so it probably makes sense that they chose to extend that courage to their marketing department too.



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