Forbes Oozes Over the Sacrosanct Line

The brand name “Forbes” means something in the business world. It is a symbol of financial acumen, solid research and journalist integrity. To quote something from Forbes is to cite a solid source, a respected voice in the sea of questionable content out there.

[responsive]Forbes-coverad[responsive]And then this – the latest issue of Forbes magazine features a native ad on the cover that’s barely distinguishable from their editorial content. It’s so subtly done that Mashable asks readers to “try to spot the native ad.”

Forbes took a public stand on native advertising early in the debate, launching its BrandVoice channel for marketers in late 2010. This 2013 article by Forbes staffer Lewis DVorkin states that the content that marketers publish (for a fee) on is “always transparently identified and labeled as marketer content.”

So, is the print magazine cover exempt from this policy, or have they backed away from their own guidelines for the sake of bigger revenues?

According to Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese, Forbes offered this response to his request for comment on the issue:

“Forbes continues to innovate, enabling us to deliver quality journalism by offering an experience that serves both readers and marketers alike. Our BrandVoice program, which is transparently and clearly labeled, has been an essential component of our successful evolution, and today approximately 30% of our advertising revenues are generated by BrandVoice partners.”

Yep, 30% is a healthy chunk of the revenue stream. We understand the temptation to make sponsored content appear like Forbes content.

They aren’t alone. Last spring the Wall Street Journal started serving up native ads, and Time Inc.’s CEO Joseph Ripp claims he “changed church and state” when he moved the editorial bullpen into the business division.

We’ll skip the sermon on this point. Even if the quality is good, and the journalistic integrity of the piece itself is solid, it’s not Forbes content. It’s a dilution of their time-tested and respected brand. That’s bad marketing.

Sponsored content has a trust issue, with a majority of readers saying they feel deceived by it. That’s a huge risk to take. Maybe the pressure is just too great to resist. Maybe the industry heavyweights believe that they can’t fight the tide so they may as well surf. Maybe this, after all, is the real difference between a “magazine” and a “magazine media company.” Maybe blurred, oozy lines is the new reality.