If you spend any time at all browsing web sites you are probably already familiar with “branded content” even if you hadn’t seen the term used. (This is not to be confused with “upworthy” clickbait techniques. You won’t believe what this dog does with a cellphone and a dead trout!) The devious nature of web sites disguising advertising links as regular content which might be of interest to their readers is insulting at best and borders on the fraudulent at worst. You know the ones I’m referring to. Since we’re talking about CNN specifically here, take a peek at a few links on their front page today.


What’s the difference between the links on the left and the ones on the right? Well, if you’re looking closely, you’ll see that one set says, From our Partners. But what’s a “partner” to a joint like CNN? Another news site? Nope. Those are all advertiser links. This is common on far too many sites.

But now CNN is joining the ranks of news providers who are going a huge step further than that and producing entire “shows” as content which may look like news, but they’re actually just grand tours for paying sponsors. (From the Wall Street Journal.)

CNN is creating an in-house studio that will produce news-like content on behalf of advertisers, a move that reflects marketers’ growing desire for articles and videos that feel like editorial work.

About a dozen staffers (made up of journalists, filmmakers and designers) will help launch the new unit, called Courageous. The division will fashion and distribute “branded content” across CNN’s fleet of properties, from TV to the Web and newer platforms like Snapchat.

This isn’t the first foray into branded content for CNN, which is owned by Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Broadcasting. CNN’s recent push into more digital video yielded 18 original series last year, 17 of which are sponsored by a company.

But the idea now is to work more closely with companies to highlight things that may have news value, such as the building of a manufacturing plant or a philanthropic effort, according to Otto Bell, the lead of the studio and former creative director at OgilvyEntertainment.

In the old days, I’m pretty sure we used to call these infomercials. But viewers have gotten more savvy over the years and will rarely sit through a thirty minute “news special” covering the wonders of the latest in home gym. But the advertisers still want to break through the consumer’s normal aversion to advertisements on the web (or on television) so they need to find a way to trick you into looking. CNN is setting up an entire studio and staff to assist them in doing just that.

For their part, CNN is saying that it’s nothing of the sort.

“This isn’t about confusing editorial with advertising,” said Dan Riess, executive vice president of integrated marketing and branded content at Turner. “This is about telling advertisers’ stories — telling similar stories but clearly labeling that and differentiating that.”

Mr. Riess said CNN’s trustworthiness when it comes to news was part of the reason Courageous would be attractive to advertisers.

“This is CNN. We’re not here to blur the lines,” he said.

I see. Of course you don’t want to blur the lines. You’re just producing some hard hitting investigative reports about how nifty and wonderful certain corporate operations are. Sounds fascinating! And if those outfits just happen to be some of your advertisers, well… why are you always so suspicious?

I don’t think that there’s much the consumer can do about this other than to be educated and not fall for the clickbait. It’s probably not “fraud” in any real technical definition of the word, and in the end all you’re probably going to lose is some of your time. But it’s still darned annoying.