Major news outlets are running a tobacco company’s ads on their websites

More than two decades after cigarette ads began disappearing from newspapers, major news organizations are running ads on their websites from tobacco giant Philip Morris touting the company’s research into smoke-free tobacco products.

I began reporting this piece after an alert reader called my attention to an ad in The Boston Globe titled “Science leading to a smoke-free future,” which appeared over the weekend and was in rotation as recently as Monday. But in Googling around, it didn’t take long to find that similar Philip Morris ads have been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters. No doubt they’ve appeared in many other outlets, too.

These are not ads that were automatically served up to news websites by Google. Rather, they are sponsored content, produced in collaboration with the news organization that publishes them. Such content, also known as “native advertising,” use type and layout that differ from the typical presentation. It’s also accompanied by disclosures that it was paid for by the advertisers and that the news and editorial departments had no involvement in its production.

Regular readers know that I’m a defender of native ads as long as there is sufficient disclosure, and I have no problem with the way these news organizations handle them. But partnering with a major tobacco company on an ad promoting research into tobacco products? Really?

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These ads appear under the byline of Dr. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris. Some excerpts from the Globe version:

We are now on a path to one day, hopefully soon in many countries in which we operate, completely replace cigarette sales with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice for the people around the world who smoke today. These are nicotine-containing products that do not burn tobacco, which — while not risk-free — are a much better choice than continuing to smoke….

The fundamental principle that drives our scientific work is the widely accepted fact that nicotine — while addictive and not risk-free — is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease. It’s the burning of tobacco that creates the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke — which is why from the outset we design our smoke-free products to eliminate burning, thus eliminating smoke while providing an alternative that smokers find acceptable and will actually use.

According to Michael Moore of Australia’s George Institute for Public Health in Australia, and a past president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the Philip Morris ads are the latest in a series of tactics by Big Tobacco to win acceptance for e-cigarettes. In an article he wrote last year for the European Journal of Public Health, he identified other tactics employed by the tobacco companies as “use of the term ‘harm reduction,’” social-media attacks on critics, hiring lobbyists, and touting e-cigarettes as a method for quitting smoking. According to a summary of his article:

Tobacco companies face an ever-increasing rate of marginalisation. They use eCigarettes as an opportunity to improve their credibility. In the past it was “just filter it” and “light cigarettes”. More recently, Philip Morris established a “Foundation for a Smoke-free World” pumping millions of dollars into distorting arguments about harm reduction.

And, yes, Moore gives Gilchrist a shoutout: “To enhance arguments, Big Tobacco has deployed public health figures like Dr Derek Yach and Dr Moira Gilchrist.”

When I asked Megan Arendt, a spokeswoman for the anti-tobacco organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), about the Philip Morris ads, she told me by email: “In a perfect world, vapes would only be marketed to (and sold to) adult people who smoke. But given their clear history of targeting children, an ad ban should include all tobacco products.”

The Philip Morris ad doesn’t promote smoking or even vaping, which has its own health risks. (On Monday, Juul reached a $40 million settlement with North Carolina over a lawsuit charging that the vaping company marketed to kids. Massachusetts is suing as well.) But the ad does talk about “ensuring our smoke-free products deliver a consistent aerosol” — so the intended user of the products being developed would still be inhaling.

Cigarette advertising is legal in U.S. newspapers. The papers couldn’t be banned from accepting such ads because of First Amendment protections, but the tobacco companies themselves could be prohibited from advertising. In 1970, President Richard Nixon (yes, everything really does go back to Nixon) signed legislation banning cigarette ads from television and radio, but those are regulated media.

The New York Times banned cigarette ads in April 1999, but said the policy didn’t apply to other papers it owned, which at that time included the Globe. That July, the Globe’s then-ombudsman, Jack Thomas, took his bosses to task and called for the Globe to follow the example set by the Times and other papers. He wrote that “publishers are still in conflict, still seduced by the revenue from tobacco ads but also uneasy in the role of a siren luring readers into a deathtrap.”

My research trail went cold after I found the Thomas piece, but at some point the Globe stopped accepting cigarette ads, as did virtually all other newspapers. As ASH’s Arendt says, the Globe — and every media outlet — should take the next step and refuse to accept ads for tobacco products. Claims that the products are only intended for adults who want a safer alternative to smoking are nice, but you know what? They’ll find those products without the complicity of news organizations.

Up, up and away with that weird, obtrusive JetBlue ad

I’ve held off on writing about the obtrusive JetBlue ad that ran in Thursday’s Boston Globe because I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. It’s hard to have a hot take without an opinion.

On the one hand, we’ve long grown accustomed to financially strapped newspaper owners accepting ad placement that would have been forbidden back in the golden (as in gold) era. (Remember when page-one ads were seen as an outrage?) And I’ve tried not to be critical as long as there was no way a reader could confuse advertising with editorial content.

On the other, the Globe and JetBlue have foisted this weirdness on the paper’s oldest, most loyal, highest-paying customers: people who actually buy the weekday print edition.

So even though I don’t see anything unethical about it, I think the Globe failed to put its customers first  — or, rather, it put one set of customers (its advertisers) ahead of another set (its readers). At least the ad didn’t run through a story about a plane crash.

JetBlue’s ad is clearly part of a national campaign, and I assume it ran in other newspapers as well. I’d be curious to know where else this appeared.

More: There’s a robust discussion of this unfolding on Facebook.

Boston Globe fun-with-numbers edition

Ken Doctor’s analysis of the “newsonomics” of The Boston Globe’s pending sale continues to yield rich insights. One part I find particularly interesting is his estimate that the Globe’s natural ceiling for digital subscriptions is probably in the vicinity of 105,000. It’s currently 28,000.

(As I’ve explained before, the auditors also give the Globe credit for seven-day print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once a week, which means the paper currently reports having 50,000 digital subscribers.)

The Globe charges about $15 a month for digital subscriptions, with or without home delivery of the Sunday print edition. Yes, there are a lot of discounts in there, but just as a quick math exercise, let’s pretend there aren’t. So:

105,000 x $15 x 12 months = $18.9 million per year

If you figure an average of $100,000 in pay and benefits per employee, that adds up to 189 people — about half of the paper’s 365 journalists.

I’m leaving out a lot of expenses (including, most significantly, non-newsroom employees), but I’m also leaving out other revenue sources — mainly seven-day print circulation, print and online advertising, and commercial printing of other newspapers, including the Boston Herald, currently issuing daily predictions of the Globe’s imminent demise.

It also seems to me that one underexploited opportunity is online advertising at BostonGlobe.com. Yes, it’s nice to give paying customers a clean, uncluttered reading experience. But surely there could be a few more ads without devolving into flashing banners, pop-up windows and stuff floating across the page. I like ads. “Ads are content,” as Howard Owens says. They contribute to a sense of community and vitality.

Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg recently told me that the Globe’s total number of unique monthly visitors is 7.5 million — 6 million at the free Boston.com site and 1.5 million at BostonGlobe.com. I would think you could sell a decent amount of advertising to an online audience of 1.5 million. Currently, though, when you read articles you can often find white space where an ad ought to be.

One caution is the Globe’s new policy of limiting social sharing on BostonGlobe.com and cutting the amount of Globe content on Boston.com. Editor Brian McGrory has said that the goal is to boost digital subscriptions. The danger is that the restrictions:

  • may fail to turn all but a tiny handful non-subscribers into paying customers;
  • may hurt Boston.com’s traffic by making the site less enticing; and
  • may (actually, will) reduce unpaid traffic to BostonGlobe.com, thus making it a less desirable platform for advertisers.

Fortunately, the restrictions can be tightened or eased depending on whether or not they are working as intended.

How news execs can avoid the online ad meltdown

Writing in Technology Review, the noted media critic Michael Wolff says Facebook is doomed — and is going to take the Web down with it. The reason: online advertising, ubiquitous and not particularly lucrative, is in a death spiral.

In my latest for the Nieman Journalism Lab, I take a look at Wolff’s analysis, and suggest some ways that news organizations can avoid the meltdown.

And thank you to Harvey Silverglate for pointing me to Wolff’s provocative essay.

Calling all advertisers

I am renewing my request for an advertiser or advertisers who’d be interested in the top-of-the-page banner. Would I accept political ads? Yes. In fact, the vertical Google ad slot features politics from time to time. I don’t want to be partisan — in a perfect world, for instance, I’d have ads for Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren alternating in that space. But let’s talk. My email address is dkennedy56 at gmail dot com.

Want to advertise on Media Nation?

If you are a local — or maybe non-local — business that would like to boost your visibility by advertising on Media Nation, please drop me a line at dkennedy56 {at} gmail {dot} com. I’d love to have someone share the overhead space with Prince Lobel.

A double whammy for the newspaper business

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the long-predicted newspaper-circulation death spiral now under way wouldn’t be such a big deal if online advertisers weren’t fleeing newspaper Web sites as well.

On a cheerier note, Jonathan Knee writes in Barron’s that recession and crushing debt are masking the fundamental soundness of many newspapers — especially monopoly papers with a circulation of 100,000 or less.

A terrifying story about the newspaper business

Outside Bagel World in Peabody
Outside Bagel World in Peabody

There’s an absolutely terrifying story about the newspaper business making the rounds today, and it’s not the one about print circulation falling another 10.6 percent. That’s hardly a surprise, given the continued rush to online — pushed along by papers like the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald raising the price of their print editions.

No, the truly ugly news is a story in the New York Times by Stephanie Clifford, who reports that companies increasingly see newspaper Web sites as a place for premium, special-event advertising, but not for everyday ads. For the latter, they use online networks, which cost a fraction of what newspapers charge.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Globe’s daily circulation fell 18.4 percent, and now stands at 264,105. On Sunday, it’s fallen by 16.9 percent, to 418,529. In its heyday, the Globe’s Monday-through-Saturday circulation was more than 500,000, and on Sundays it was north of 800,000.

The Monday-through-Saturday Herald stands at 138,260, down 17.5 percent. The circulation of the Sunday Herald dropped 5 percent, to 95,635.

If you had told me five years ago what the print circulation of the Globe and the Herald would be today, I’d like to think I would have been entirely unsurprised. On the other hand, I know I would have been shocked that advertising revenues had not followed from print to online.

If the eventual end of the recession doesn’t provide some relief to the beleaguered newspaper business, you really have to wonder how this will all end.

The missing mayor

Joel Brown calls a television commercial put out by Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s re-election campaign, featuring his empty desk, “a terrible spot” and — with a bit of rewriting — “an excellent ad for one of his opponents.”

Adam Gaffin adds: “Maybe this is what happened to Curley’s desk.”

Where it all went wrong

I’m no advertising expert, but Steve Buttry’s post on newspapers’ original sin strikes me as being exactly right:

The disastrous error that newspapers made early in our digital lives was treating online advertising as a throw-in or upsell for their print advertisers. Helping businesses connect with customers was always our business. We were facing new technology and new opportunities and we did next to nothing to explore how we might use this new technology to help businesses connect with customers.

We just offered businesses the same old solutions that we offered in print, but pop-up ads and web banners somehow didn’t work as well as display ads. Which was just as well, because we told our business customers the ads weren’t worth much by the way we treated them.

Having blown the online-advertising business, newspaper executives are now going to make up for it by charging for online content — likely with miserable results. (Via Steve Yelvington.)