Integrity and Advertisements

A reader (Tom) sent in an interesting mailbag question that I thought deserved its own post.

Why should I ever trust the content of any site or magazine that runs advertisements? That publication is receiving money for displaying those ads, and if they’re selling their space to ads, who’s to say they’re not selling their content? That’s why I only trust books and Consumer Reports.

Tom brings up a good point, but doesn’t carry it far enough.

The Realities of Advertising

Having advertisements has little or no connection to the integrity of the information provided by a publication. Writing and publication of quality material takes a lot of work – research, crafting the articles, and finding a mechanism for putting those materials out there. Advertisements are one way for a group or organization involved in this research and writing and publication to recoup those costs. Since most websites give away their content for free to readers, for example, they have to have some way to recoup their costs: the time spent researching and writing articles and the cost of hosting the site.

Look at some real-world examples. A popular site like The Simple Dollar costs hundreds of dollars directly each month just to deliver the pages to your computer – major sites like CNN.com and ESPN.com have costs in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars a month just to keep their sites up and delivering content to you. This content is delivered with no monetary cost to the reader. Similarly, a magazine has to cover printing costs and shipping costs and are sold at extremely low prices by subscription.

With sources like these, you’re effectively paying for the content by viewing the ads that are included. Advertisers generally couldn’t care less about the content itself – they just want eyeballs from a certain demographic.

With sources like books and Consumer Reports, you pay for the content up front with the price of admission. You get an ad-free publication, but you’re paying them directly instead of having most (or all) of your share of the costs covered by the advertisers.

In both cases, the organization is looking for a way to recoup the costs of producing the material you’re reading – they’ve just chosen different ways to do that. Quite often, the choice was made due to the initial investment: a book publisher is putting up a lot of money up front under the belief that they’ll make the money back later from book sales, for example, and Consumer Reports is funded by Consumers Union, which is a nonprofit group that accepts donations in addition to charging a pretty stiff price for their publication compared to others.

Neither method has anything to do with the quality of the content – they’re just different ways of paying for the effort of researching articles, writing articles, editing articles, and delivering these articles to readers.

I tend to believe that my content needs to be read for free by people, so not only do I not charge for it, I send it out by email to readers and also let it be read by RSS feed. I recoup my costs with ads. It has nothing at all to do with the trustworthiness of the information contained within – if that’s faulty, that’s my own mistake, not the advertisers.

No One Is Trustworthy

Then who should you trust? The truth is you shouldn’t trust anyone. No matter what the subject, you should gather information from a number of sources and make up your own mind about it. Expecting perfectly reliable information from any one source is unrealistic for several reasons.

People make mistakes. I mess up all the time. I try very hard to present reliable and correct information, but I’m far from perfect at it. Unfortunately, everyone else who writes is in that same boat as well. We’re all human. We all make mistakes – misunderstanding facts, mis-stating things, and so on. Very, very rarely are these things negligent, but they do happen.

People have different beliefs and biases. Take politics, for example. Different sources for political news have different biases and thus will choose some issues to cover and ignore others, or they’ll cover the same issue with completely different angles. The same thing happens in almost every area. For example, I’m a big believer in avoiding debt, but some people preach the idea that debt can be used as leverage to get rich.

Some people don’t care about your best interests. Some people will say or do anything to make a buck. They’ll write stuff that’s blatantly wrong if the pay is good, and will often mix together correct stuff and false stuff just to confuse you.

What You Can Do

Regardless of how much trust you place in an author, you owe it to yourself to always double check any piece of information that is influencing you to make a significant decision. If it’s a major choice, try to use several sources, including at least a few that are off line.

Here’s an example. I deeply trust Consumer Reports, but if I’m about to make a major purchase, I don’t even fully trust them. I look at other publications, like Car and Driver and fueleconomy.gov if I’m researching a car purchase, for example, because I know that bias can slip even into something as scrutinized as the Consumer Reports car reviews. By doing this due diligence, I know I’m eliminating any bias that might be there, whether it’s founded or not.

I don’t doubt that CR does a good job and is genuinely trying to produce accurate, quality information, but no source is absolute and no source should be treated that way. On the flip side, presence of advertising doesn’t mean that a source has worthless information – it means that’s the method they’ve chosen to use to pay for the effort in producing material. The only sure sign that a source of information is worthless is the presence of faulty information on a consistent basis. And the only way to make sure you’re not caught by that trap is to investigate multiple sources of information when it’s important.

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  1. Jack says:

    i can think of a faultless source: the bible

  2. Rob says:

    Case in point. Your site seems to be getting filled up with ads. I have a two year old. I dont have cable, because he really doesnt need to see all the commercials. We dont go to the mall, because of all the new tv like ads everywhere. Its to out of control.

  3. Diane says:

    Rob, if the ads on websites bother you THAT much, read them through an RSS feed or install an ad blocker. Just know that the people who are providing the content to you for free need to make a living too.

  4. Flea says:

    Trent, I don’t think people quite understand it does cost time and money to run a blog and present pertinent, factual and entertaining content. I face the same issues with my blog…the small amount…and I do mean small amount from Google and Amazon don’t even begin to cover my time. Forget about books and equipment to review…

    Keep up the fight!

    Flea
    http://beasurvivor.blogspot.com/

  5. Wil says:

    I think that the basic thing to remember is that you really have to trust yourself. Trent gives solid information consistently. If that continues, I don’t care what ads he runs, or if he runs ads at all. Personally, I find a lot of bias and a direction I disagree with in Consumer Reports, and they don’t offer ads. Consequently, I don’t trust them. Bottom line, as long as the meat of what is said makes sense and doesn’t violate your personal morals, don’t sweat if there are ads there as well.

  6. Adrian says:

    “Having advertisements has little or no connection to the integrity of the information provided by a publication”

    Right, like how Trent runs ads for Provigil, which is a drug that people take to get wired and stay aggressive and “at the peak of their game”.

    I like Trent’s blog, but Provigil ads (which he should have blacklisted by now) are unethical. However when you’ve made a huge life-altering change like Trent has with his full-time blogging, you need to take the $$ any way it comes, and i understand that.

  7. Keith says:

    I like Paul Harvey’s approach. He never advertises for anything he does not personally use or agree with.

    If Trent uses ING and likes it, I want to hear about it…good and bad. Integrity is lost only if he touts a product that he does not use or agree with.

  8. Jeff says:

    Firefox has an add on called AdBlock Plus. I rarely see adds at all. Pages load faster. Sites look cleaner. I know the site admins (and especially some bloggers) aren’t a fan of it since it knocks down traffic to their sponsors/advertisers, but I won’t lose any sleep over that.

  9. Trent says:

    “Firefox has an add on called AdBlock Plus. I rarely see adds at all. Pages load faster. Sites look cleaner. I know the site admins (and especially some bloggers) aren’t a fan of it since it knocks down traffic to their sponsors/advertisers, but I won’t lose any sleep over that.”

    If a minority uses it, it’s not a problem. If a majority uses it, a good part of the internet stops functioning because it no longer becomes cost effective to put in the effort to run sites.

    In other words, you’re only able to use it and gobble content because the vast majority of others aren’t using it and are effectively paying the bill for you.

  10. I think americans have just become used to believing whatever they see. There are very few standards in commercials. I saw a commercial with Marie Osmond doing a commercial for Nutri system “claiming” she lost weight from using the diet. But I read that she lost over 40 pounds from being on Dancing with the Stars and the excercise she got from being on that show. She didn’t mention anything about Nutri system until after she had lost all of this weight. I thought it was obvious that Nutrisystem was the cause of her weight loss. No offense, but I feel 90 percent of the population are sheep and have not learned to think for themselves.

    Robyn

    Recritique.com

    Restaurant Printable Coupons, Freebies and More.

  11. Jen says:

    @Jack:

    Faultlessness is relative for all sources.

  12. Frugal Dad says:

    Trent, I always appreciate when you make a mistake that you own it. I made one today in a post and an astute reader pointed it out in the comments section. I admitted the goof and credited him for finding it. Like you said, we are all human!

  13. Ari Herzog says:

    Trent -

    I’m with you on integrity and making choices but I have a question on one piece you wrote:

    A popular site like The Simple Dollar costs hundreds of dollars directly each month just to deliver the pages to your computer…

    I don’t care for details, Trent, but hundreds? How do you figure? Or are you including labor, keyboard depreciation and utility bills? You don’t have the overhead of a company like CNN.

    - Ari

  14. Lurker Carl says:

    Human nature is much the same as it was 165 years ago. To quote Edgar Allen Poe in his 1844 short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”

    “You are young yet, my friend, but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see.”

  15. Trent says:

    Ari: The Simple Dollar requires dedicated hosting – shared doesn’t cut it (I used to be on shared hosting, but the traffic overwhelmed the site – see this old post from when it happened). Reliable dedicated hosting is not cheap – even the shadiest low end dedicated hosting providers approach three figures, and the good ones (the ones who will be around at 2 AM and willing to fix your server) are much higher than that.

  16. Amit Borkar says:

    Hello Trent,
    I read your blog consistently, and i must admit that i really admire your articles and thoughts..I hardly even look at those ads.
    (as i am in India, those ads really dont make any sense to me)…

    But i dont think anyone should doubt the integrity of TSD.

    Thanks for sharing your articles (for free :) )

    Keep up the good work!!

    All the best

    Regards,
    - Amit

  17. reulte says:

    Books, magazines and other information (Bible included) alone won’t do, you really have to use your brain.

    Also, I’d like to point out a 4th rubric under “No One is Trustworthy”. Nothing is static; times change, situations change.

  18. Greg says:

    Unfortunately, even the Bible isn’t faultless. It was written by men, and has been re-written countless times, not to mention the differing interpretations presented as fact. But I digress…
    My local newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press writes articles about its advertisers. It’s one of the “perks” the sales folks use when selling advertising to businesses. So your average Joe opens the paper and reads about this great new restaurant that’s getting rave reviews, when in fact, a “reporter” went to the business and interviewed the owner with leading questions in order to get the “review”. That’s just a small-market newspaper. What sucks is that people are so blind to the marketing they are inundated with.

    I also use Ad-Block. If I find a site that I like and/or want to support, I will disable it to see if there are ads that I would be interested in. If not, I re-enable it for a better user experience.

  19. Anna says:

    Trent, I am split on this question … I know you need to make money to run the site and you have made some life changes that require the extra income. However, having been absent from the site for a few months as part of my family’s “use-less-media” effort, I was overwhelmed by the number of ads that I encountered when I came back. It was hard to get to the wheat through all of the chaff.

  20. Stephanie says:

    I am sure that you are sincere when you state that your advertisers do not influence your content. But, I do feel that major publications (magazines, TV) often slant their content to keep their biggest advertisers happy. They are in business to make $ and have to keep the advertisers happy.

    As for the comment on Provigil. Yes, it can be abused (as can many other meds) but it also has many legitimate uses and it is prescribed for Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, narcolepsy just to name a few. It’s not that I am in favor of direct-to-consumer pharma ads (actually I’d like to see them disappear) , but it does seem unfair to pick on one medication.

  21. Tom says:

    Hi Trent,

    I should have expanded on my idea so here goes (with an example):

    Edmunds.com recieves millions of dollars per week from various auto makers to run everything from simple banners ads to sponsored micro sites that look and behave like the Edmunds.com site (you need to look close to find the sponsored content copy). As an example, and you can find the numbers in Ad Age, one auto maker spent 20.5 Million on Edmunds display advertising alone in 2007.

    Edmunds.com, as well as Car and Driver, etc, all take pre producton and free, test, vehicles to evaluate. The pre production cars are usually handed off or driven at elaborate “press” events with free gourmet food, free luxury lodging, etc.

    JD Power, another “trusted” source, makes most of its revenue on consulting gigs for the very auto makers they rate.

    My point is that ad dollars can sway the editorial opinion of an organization; I’m not talking about a blog like yours, I’m talking about publication and organizations like JD Power, Car And Driver, Edmunds.com , Yahoo, MSN, etc. As for as I know, Consumer Reports is the only source that does not accept advertising, is non profit, and uses both objective lab testing and national census (the annual questionnaire they send is the largest census next to the US census) to base its ratings and reviews on (so it’s not just lab testing but actually real world use from US consumers).

  22. Monica says:

    I don’t think it’s quite true that magazine advertisers don’t care about content. They may not care about unrelated content, but they sure do care about related content. For example, why do you think mainstream women’s magazines don’t print articles about the Keeper or reusable pads? Because their advertisers, like Tampax and so on, would withdraw their advertising dollars. Or what about in the “old days” when there were cigarette ads in most magazines — what would have happened if the magazine published an article about the effect of tobacco on your health?

  23. As stated in some of the comments above, if readers don’t like ads, but enjoy the content, there are a couple ways to get around it.

    1. get an ad blocker
    2. read the site through a feedreader or via email.

    Another point is that blog content is completely FREE but it takes WORK to churn out good content day after day.

  24. John Jimenez says:

    hey jack, (Comment #1), I think you need to rethink that comment.

    “Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22:1-18)

    (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)
    As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you.

  25. Lenore says:

    While I doubt you feel beholden to your blog’s semi-random advertisers, Trent, most print and broadcast outlets aren’t so lucky. Women’s magazines tout thin figures, trendy clothes and an artificial standard of beauty because most of their sponsors sell weight-loss, fashion or cosmetic products. This is precisely why Ms. Magazine stopped running ads and is supported only by subscriptions: they chose to free their content from the dic(k)tates of sponsors spurred by profit or patriarchal values. You have such a keen appreciation of the way advertisers delude and manipulate consumers that I’m surprised you’d be oblivious to their control of most media. So-called morality groups have often persuaded companies to pull advertising from TV programs they found offensive. It’s not exactly censorship, but it keeps networks nervous about producing shows too edgy to make money. The real golden rule unfortunately lets those with the gold make the rules most of the time.

  26. Someone says:

    A note on the “never trust any one source thing”.

    There are some stories on Snopes– I forget what category they are under, “lost legends” maybe? That make this point.

    I was reading one of them. My train of thought: “Huh.. that’s interesting… wow, that’s downright weird…. that’s getting harder to believe, but this is Snopes, and they’re reliable…. OK, if this were ANYONE other than snopes, I’d be calling BS….OK, now I’m calling BS even though it IS snopes….what the heck? Is ANYONE supposed to beleive THAT… OK, this is getting to the point of being intentionally over-the-top. What’s going on here?”

    At the very bottom there was a button “about this page…” which led to a piece saying that yes, the story you just read really was utter BS– and that it just goes to show “you should never trust ANY single source– even us [snopes]“. I laughed out loud when I saw that.

  27. Jeff says:

    Trent,

    For the record, even though I used Adblock plus, I have directed at least 10 people who now read on a regular basis AND have donated directly to a few sites (although I haven’t to yours just yet). If I find it interesting enough, I always support financially.

  28. Amanda says:

    I see you are beginning to understand the purpose, function, & necessity of advertising. Unfortunately, you only see how it benefits you. If you begin to look at how it TRULY benefits everyone using your site…you’ll fall into the most profitable realization ever for your readers & yourself, i.e. you need a perspective change besides just slapping ads up on the site.
    Anyhow…
    you’ll get there. Read more of (the late) David Ogilvy & D. Bird on how to connect everything back to the consumer, or “reader” in your case.

    BTW, returns in the publishing industry are averaging 50-80% lately…get a back-up plan for your book release…think Seth Godin if you want to explore profitability & getting your message out there.

  29. Michelle says:

    Magazine articles are absolutely slanted by the advertising. I know this because I purchase ad space for a living and magazines will tout every angle they can at you to get you to buy a page. Some will even go as far as to sell you a mention in September’s article on blah, blah, blah. Yes, this is an unethical practice and it happens more than you think, some are very blatant about it and others not so obvious but is still there. I used to work for a real estate company and I knew about every real estate focus that was coming up for the next year in every magazine, because they made it a point to seek me out and tell me so I can buy an ad adjacent to the article that focuses on real estate.

  30. Interesting. I don’t have any ads on my site but I do have some referral links. I generally do not click on ads but if I am a regular reader and something catches my eye, I might. I don’t use ad blockers.

    I will ONLY suggest or refer a product/system that I use or have experience with. And I’ve learned about programs from other bloggers who have recommended them and been very happy. As long as everything is transparent – i.e. the blogger admits that they will get a monetary benefit if I click a link or sign up.

    What I really HATE are those “sponsored posts” where someone talks about a product as if they are recommending it and then at the end it says “post paid by” or something. Those bug me.

  31. Family Man says:

    I think there has to be integrity in advertising. For example if you have a sponsored post, which I do from time to time, I label them as “Advertisments”. I also think that if you want to advertise something, you have to be willing to purchase the product yourself, and believe in it. Just my two cents!

  32. Trent says:

    “If you begin to look at how it TRULY benefits everyone using your site…you’ll fall into the most profitable realization ever for your readers & yourself, i.e. you need a perspective change besides just slapping ads up on the site.”

    My ideal is that I can just get specific ads from companies that I strongly agree with, and I’m at least partially there (hence the ING Direct ads and the Coupons.com ads, both products I use at least weekly and almost every day). The problem is that hunting for these individually is a lot of work with a very high failure rate. What I’d really like is to get some books in print and then slowly remove the ad space for other products and replace it with ads for my own books, which completely mesh with the entire focus of the site.

    I don’t have the full leverage yet to do exactly what I want, but I’m getting there. You’ve described exactly where I intend to go over the long haul.

  33. silver says:

    I understand the point of ads on your site. I’m not going to complain about that. But I do think that you’re letting your need for ad revenue cloud the fact that magazines and other mass media sources are not the same as you in how ads affect them.

    As several other commenters have mentioned, magazine article content is swayed by advertisers. They may have articles mentioning specific products, or they may run articles that promote a lifestyle that is in line with their advertisers (all the weight lose articles in women’s magazines come to mind).

    Would you trust a study that claimed that smoking cut the risk of brain tumors if the study were payed for by a cigarette company? Yes, research needs funding, but there’s a conflict of interest there when a cigarette company funds a study that “just happens” to find that smoking has some good points. How is it any different when a magazine “just happens” to mention a specific brand of cleaner in their “green laundry room” article?

  34. Mister E says:

    It depends on the magazine too. Some of them are little more than ads with a few pages of articles recommending the products or at least the TYPES of products in the ads.

  35. Lise says:

    Trent, I enjoy reading all your meditations on how ads have affected your site.

    I am myself trying to figure out how I want to incorporate advertising into my site, if at all. I’m torn, because on one hand I’m very anti-advertising and very anti-consumerism. I look at magazines like Real Simple and very clearly see how they’re basically just books of ads. But I love blogging and writing, and I would love to be able to do what you do and make a living from it. Ideally I’d only promote products I personally agree with, but I know that wouldn’t be even near enough to buy a coffee once in a while.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear more about this topic, and know that I support you in all your endeavors. I totally understand what it’s like to make that tough decision.

  36. Kate says:

    Even the Bible isn’t a flawless source. Think of how many times it’s been revised, edited, “offensive” parts have been omitted. The Bible is a great spiritual work inspired by God, but not directly written by God.

  37. Amanda says:

    Trent,
    I’ve bet you read this book, but here it anyway: Seth Godin “Unleasing the Ideavirus.” You can even download it free off his blog. If you can do this w/ your blog & book(s)–you’ll be all set.

    As a person in publishing for several years: I don’t know what your book deal is, but you may have an issue w/ keeping it in print if it’s not as successful as you planned, so I think if you create products beyond even a book (reliant on the publisher’s over-extended mktg/publicity dept. to make it successful –on a wing & a prayer), that you’ll get beyond this dead market.

    Anyhow, you need to make sure you’re getting an e-book ISBN too.
    Also, make sure you have some outs in that contract! You don’t want your book dead in their backlist. They’ll not want to give you the rights back & it will die there.
    Books are great, but truly interactive “Trent” products are even better. Brand yourself & make yourself indispensible to us–a book makes you dispensible.
    Seth Godin & Drayton Bird may help you take your thoughts of where you can really go to the next level.
    Just some ideas. Good luck to you.

  38. Great article! I’ve never had a problem with ads and content as long as they stay separate. The big issue is when money starts paying for or influencing what the writers say in the articles.

  39. MInTheGap says:

    I used to run an ad blocker, but when I started to think that I was running ads on my site and it was hypocritical, I stopped.

    I now am targeted when it comes to ads– not showing regular readers ads unless the post is 20 days old. So I’m more picky with who sees what.

    It’s hard to blog and have a family, and do all the side work (like commenting, participating in social networks, etc.) and then justify it by declaring it “an art” or “a hobby.” There’s a lot of effort going in– what do you want to come out?

  40. Emma Savage says:

    Adrian: Report unethical ad?

  41. James says:

    Why would you even believe Consumer Reports? I haven’t since I read their review of theHonda Insight. I own one, and the only way I can think their review was honest is to assume that someone slipped them an entirely different vehicle.

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