The Ethics of Sponsored Content as Content Marketing

We’ve all seen it, and by now, we know what the title looks like:

What Google Knows and You Don’t

Get Rich During the Economic Crisis

Top 5 Ways to Turn Your Life Around Today!

And on and on and on. These lists, strategies, tips, secret inside information all use our inner fears and doubts as sales mechanisms, which in itself is nothing to get upset about because that’s just how advertising works. But, when you click on the article, nine times out of ten, it doesn’t even give you the information that it claimed it was going to tell you. It just ends up telling you a bunch of things you already knew, then information about a product you should buy.

Now, are these sponsored posts—advertisements that take on the form of a news article—unethical? If the product doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, it is. If the product is unnecessary and a waste of our money, it is. But, what if it is a useful product? What if it’s simply a brand of motor oil that works fine? Is it really all that bad?

It’s certainly irritating, but aren’t a lot of ads annoying? Isn’t telemarketing annoying? Isn’t that constant junk mail letter from The New York Times annoying because it’s such a waste of paper? Just because it’s annoying, does that make it unethical?

This phenomenon called “sponsored content” has led to an outburst of scrutiny in the media—including the poignant and hilarious video by The Onion, “Sponsored Content Pretty Fucking Awesome” (Notice that the title doesn’t make sense. That’s because they’re mocking the writer’s use of SEO keywords, the strategy where copywriters just shove words in titles to make the article pop up on Google)—and recently, companies have responded by changing their strategy.

Notice this recent article by the ultrahip new startup Casper beds, “8 Reasons Why This Blog Post Is Trying to Sell You a Mattress.” Here we see a new strategy: companies simply acknowledging that what they are trying to do is sell you stuff through their blog, so why even try to sugar coat it with empty, useless, or misleading information? This is a brilliant meta-style approach—a response to the public’s outcry that they’re tired of sponsored content, and they won’t read it anymore—but how many times can a company write that article? Maybe once every two to three months, but certainly not every week, or a few times a week. So where does the content come from?

Social Construct believes that it’s in exchanging genuine ideas, real-life skills that you can pass on to the next person. Longevity comes from sustaining engagement with your audience’s intellect, rather than their impulsive fear.

Because who hasn’t used a YouTube video to learn a skill. I’ve done all these things because of YouTube:

Changed a bike inner tube
Changed a car battery
Changed car tires
Got a heat stain off a wooden table
Made infographics
Made Lomo Saltado (a delicious Peruvian stir fry dish)

And many more! What do we think? Be better than that. Don't avoid sponsored content because of ethical reasons. Don't do it because it's dumb. Don't do it because it's a waste of time.

Social Construct seeks niche audiences: people who genuinely care about metalworking, watercolors, and the history of railroads. We seek to deliver cool information to cool people.

That's what content marketing should be.