Blurred Lines & Crossroads: When Engagement Becomes Manipulation?

I came across this interesting article, written by Ava Sirrah, a PhD candidate who herself used to work as a creative strategist for a company enlisted by The New York Times.

The story is this: She explores in retrospect the blurred lines and questionable ethics (and general shadiness) of “native advertising” and editorial content. Huge publications like this one hire teams of creatives to specifically design native ads that will be so tailored and streamlined they will look like part of the article.

As a Creative Strategist in T Brand Studio, I was tasked with crafting proposals that showed marketers how the Times could create bespoke advertising opportunities that would capture an engaged audience. In practice, this means working closely with the sales staff across specific categories such as finance, live entertainment, and luxury, and to respond to RFPs (requests for proposal). A common theme in these RFPs was a request for something that “has never been done before.” This wasn’t a surprise, because it is not always enough to offer a brand digital ad space: rather, content studios need to deliver creative ideas to clients.” (Sirrah)

Even the journalist is not privy to who’s controlling this, and the lack of transparency to media watchdogs she finds very alarming. The term used is “branded article” which is kind of spooky, but pretty common.

I thought about the Hujanen article’s mention of “consumer business partnerships” and kind of re-branded it in my head to the tune of the Sirrah piece: this idea of the relationship between the advertiser and The Times to keep the influence and revenue evolving, as well as the custom advertising campaigns tying the company to the publication.

“As perceived in participatory discourse, user-generated content may change the user experience and the role of an original piece of news.” (Hujanen, 954.)

This of course is a big question mark since Sirrah tells us there is much mystery around how the publisher-advertiser relations are regulated, but they’re definitely studying demographics, so it’s almost a kind of unusual/inadvertent user engagement. Which might help you find the right bank, but is also super creepy.




Hujanen, Jaana. “At the Crossroads of Participation and Objectivity: Reinventing Citizen Engagement in the SBS Newsroom.” New Media & Society 15.6 (2013): 947-962.

Sirrah, Ava. “The Blurring Line Between Editorial and Native Ads at the New York Times”. Mediashift. October 3, 2017.

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