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The Times – Please Advertise Responsibly

"Chivas - Live with Chivalry" - But was The Times piece fair play?

"Chivas - Live with chivalry" - But was The Times' piece fair play?

In a blatant act of product placement, The Times pushes the envelope of advert articles with a scotch sponsored feature on chivalry.

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Newspapers have been peppered with adverts disguised as articles for some time now.  Usually, it doesn’t take the least discerning reader a few seconds to realise that the softness of the latest batch of bath towels is not necessarily as newsworthy as its prominence would have you believe.

This bogus trickery must surely come at a cost to the credibility of the product (even when headed by “Advertisement Feature” in small print) and should only be regarded as a frustrating annoyance rather than a genuine worry for the integrity of news and comment provision.  (The internet, as always, leads the way on bogus articles, see here.)

But a feature entitled “The Gentlemen’s Code” in Saturday’s sport section of The Times (12/12/10) went somewhat further.  The piece, written by The Times sports writer and former England Batsman Ed Smith, was concocted between the paper’s marketing team and Chivas scotch whiskey.  In an attempt to associate the brand with chivalry and gentlemanly behaviour, the piece opens “Chivalry and sport go back a long way” and is footed by a Chivas banner proclaiming “WIN, BUT NOT AT ANY COST.  CHIVAS, LIVE WITH CHIVALRY.”

The piece distinguishes itself from other bogus articles quite successfully.  It is written by a respectable Times journalist, it is written in good old fashioned Times New Roman, and at no point does it pretend to be anything other than a feature on sportsmanship followed by an associated advert banner.  There is even an advert for the advert on page 47 of the main newspaper.

What is perhaps the most troubling element is that the piece is engaging and well written, complete with interesting anecdotes and a history of chivalry fact box.  One may argue that such cunning desperation might be a sign of “the times” (no comment on the intention of the pun), but surprisingly, the advertising revenue of newspapers is fairly lucrative these days.

This is especially the case for newspapers with an affluent readership that can read the recommended purchases of the weekend magazines without grimacing at the price tags (see here).

Indeed, The Times is valued so highly by advertisers for two reasons:  association with a perceived quality of journalism, and more importantly, a perceived quality of readership.  The Times actively encourages this latter element.  In this fascinating Times promotional page for potential marketers, the core readership is described as “Affluent, high income consumers aged 30 – 50.  The number one quality daily newspaper for business readers in the UK” and the Sunday Times readership: “High income earners across a broad age range. No1 for adults earning £50k+”

But does “The Gentleman’s Code” cross the boundary?  How far will readers allow their journalism to be intruded upon? What next?  A story about humanitarian aid sponsored by Uncle Ben’s rice?

If The Times is to maintain what many are claiming is a questionable grip on its integrity, it must not blur the line between promotion and quality journalism any further.

UPDATE: Strangely enough, you can peak over the pay wall of thetimes.co.uk to find the article has been uploaded with a small Chivas banner on the side of the page

In fact there are four related articles written by sportsman (including Roger Black, David Gower and Mike Catt) all concerning chivalry, sponsored of course, by a certain brand of gentlemanly whiskey.  The slogan is now, rather ironically, “Make the news for the right reasons.”  Hopefully The Times will ensure this ideal is kept to in the future.

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