When is an ad not an ad?

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Guardian advert“Let’s get this straight,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as he met me at the door of his cottage on London’s Abbey Road. “You think I’m going to hell and I think you’re going to hell.” It was the first time I’d met the Rabbi, and it hadn’t even occurred to me to think about his eternal destiny, so I was a bit taken-aback that he was so certain of mine. Shmuley Boteach is no ordinary Rabbi, but at least he lets you know where you stand.

Rabbi Boteach lives in New Jersey now, where he runs an organisation called This World: The Values Network. He is a controversialist and a self-publicist, a self-appointed sex guru who calls himself “America’s Rabbi.” He has re-engaged with Britain this week, having placed a controversial full-page advert in yesterday’s Guardian. In between the adverts for posh toilet rolls and discounted mortgages, Boteach’s ad stands out. At the top is a striking image of a man holding a rocket launcher, which he is pointing towards the reader. His face is covered by a balaclava, but a headband makes it clear that he is Palestinian. The headline below reads “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” It is followed by a strange, rather rambling text, with language that swerves from pacific to highly inflammatory. The gist of it is that Hamas is a “death cult” which is using children as human shields. In doing so, the writer says, they are guilty of child sacrifice. The missiles may be Israeli, but it is clear where the writer places the blame for the deaths of hundreds of children in Gaza. The text purports to come from the 85-year old holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel – though one can’t help feeling that the Nobel Laureate might have been commandeered into this by the Rabbi. The small print at the bottom of the page makes it clear that the message was “organized, produced and paid for” by Shmuley Boteach’s “This World” organisation.

The same page (in an Americanised form) has also appeared this week in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald, butnot in the London Times, which turned it down, saying that “the opinion being expressed is too strong and too forcefully made and will cause concern amongst a significant number of Times readers.”

Rattling your readers doesn’t seem like a good reason for a newspaper to make an editorial judgement but still, proprietors have choices to make. A paper can refuse to run an advert if it doesn’t want to be associated with a product or opinion. So why has The Guardian chosen to run the ad, and The Times chosen not to? Is The Times engaging in “the worst kind of censorship” as Boteach has subsequently complained? Should The Guardian be applauded for its commitment to free speech in running a pro-Israeli piece? Or on the contrary, is it being cowardly in accepting money for an advert that has such a confused, one-sided message?

Advertising is a dark art, and a costly one. A full-page spread in a UK national newspaper costs between £12 and £15 000 to place – more if you want colour. Not surprisingly, ad agencies choose carefully where they spend their money. They want to influence a particular set of viewers or readers, and they want to borrow some of the credibility of the newspaper on whose pages the ads appear. In movies it’s called “product placement” and it often stands out like a sore thumb. But in a serious newspaper one page of print can look pretty much like another. For that reason, the “free speech” argument The Guardian has deployed in its defence doesn’t really work. Whether a newspaper is running editorial or paid copy, (and this ad is not labelled as such) it can’t altogether wash its hands of the content. It must at least be made clear whether that content purports to be journalism or advertising. In any newspaper – or TV station or website for that matter – there’s a crucial difference between the material that the publisher has paid for, and the material for which the publisher has been paid. By carrying the advert alongside its own journalism, it is to some degree endorsing what the advert says. It is at least saying to its readers that these are opinions worth listening to.

Mixing advertising and editorial is a trap that becomes easier to fall into when funds are short. Take religious radio for example. Many stations are a blend of content that has been commissioned by the station, and content that has been paid for by “ministries” that are effectively advertising their views. And on TV, OFCOM regulations mean that outside of peak time, commercial channels can choose to run up to twelve minutes of advertising in a single block. This practice, common in the US and New Zealand, means that an advert for hair remover can look very much like a feature in a daytime programme. It’s a very short step from this to Rabbi Boteach, or anyone else with enough money and chutzpah, buying air-time to express their views on network TV.

The Guardian has form in this too. It regularly produces glossy supplements that look like journalism but are in fact wholly funded by commercial concerns or interest groups. For example, it has a seven-figure deal to provide editorial content about sustainability, all funded by household goods company Unilever. The sponsored content will be labelled as such (unlike today’s pro-Israel advert, which isn’t distinguished from the surrounding journalism.) In fact The Guardian has a substantial department known as Guardian Lab, describing itself as “a branded content and innovation agency which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences”. Like all newspapers, The Guardian is struggling to find an economic model that works in the new digital environment. Like most it is bleeding funds. Accepting this advert seems like an admission that The Guardian’s readership is for sale, and if some confusion arises between what is journalism and what is advertising, so be it.

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