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October 12, 2020

Is It a News Story or a Sales Pitch on Major News Sites?

Filed under: Business,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:04 am

Please Help Support Mouse Print*

Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


We turn to news sites like CNBC, USA Today, CNN and many others for news stories written by seasoned reporters independent of the advertising sales side of these businesses. So, we can generally expect the stories we see on those sites not to be advertising in disguise, or somehow tempered by the writer’s knowledge that the subject of the story advertises on that site, right?

More and more, however, big name news sites are blurring the line between conventional news stories written by the site’s journalists, and what is called “commerce content.” The whole purpose of commerce content is to publish what look like news or feature stories but whose purpose is really to sell stuff to readers thereby allowing the site to earn a commission. All this is done under the aura of the well-known and trusted name of the news site on which these articles appear.

Here is an advertisement for CNN Underscored which reviews various products:



If you go to CNN Underscored directly, or from a search result, you will find a long list of stories such as ones about buying the best laptop, or finding the best cash back credit card.

CNN Underscored story

At the top of the site, however, there is a fine print disclaimer:

*MOUSE PRINT:

CNN Underscored is your guide to the everyday products and services that help you live a smarter, simpler and more fulfilling life. The content is created by CNN Underscored. CNN News staff is not involved. When you make a purchase, we receive revenue. [color added for emphasis]

That’s right. CNN (and the other sites mentioned below) typically use other writers and reporters to write these stories to help lead you to make a purchase and thus compensate the website’s publisher.

Interestingly, in its “About Us” section, CNN says that the Underscored staff doesn’t always test the products themselves but rather reads others’ reviews or other organizations’ test results as part of its research process.

Below is a Who’s Who of news media with either whole sections devoted to these sales pitches dressed up to look like regular consumer stories, or who intermingle commerce content or sponsored stories with legitimate news stories. Some do a better job than others in researching the subject matter of the story and thus provide a valuable service. Most of them do a relatively poor job in disclosing that they make money if you make a purchase from the links in their articles.

  • CNBC Select
  • USA Today Reviewed
  • New York Times Wirecutter
  • Forbes shopping
  • Yahoo! Life [certain stories]
  • Huffington Post Shopping Finds
  • Business Insider
  • BuzzFeed Shopping
  • Washington Post Brand Studio [sponsored content]
  • NBC News Brand Studio [sponsored content]
  • NBC News Shop Today
  • Tribune Publishing/BestReviews (Chicago Tribune, NY Daily News, Baltimore Sun, etc.)
  • MSN Travel/Points Guy

    So many news sites are now promoting links from which they can get paid that the Wall Street Journal has put a disclaimer at the end of some of its stories saying that it is NOT receiving any such compensation:

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    WSJ not being paid

    The trouble with these types of stories on many of the news websites is that they often are listed in Google News or Bing News when doing searches of news stories. So you have to look carefully at ANY news story to see if it is a regular news feature or a story designed to get you to buy a product or service.




  • • • •

    June 1, 2020

    Holy Sheet: Is This How They Sell Magazines Now?

    Filed under: Business,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:06 am

    Please Help Support Mouse Print*

    Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


    John G. wrote to Mouse Print* last week after buying a queen set of Better Homes and Gardens sheets at Walmart, which came with an unexpected surprise.

    BHG Sheets

     

    The package says that by buying this set of sheets you also get a one-year subscription to Better Homes and Gardens magazine. That’s a nice bonus. And this was inside the package:

    Better Homes and Gardens offer card

    The card explained that a one-year magazine subscription was included as a “thank you” for the purchase. So far, so good. But our consumer became disenchanted when he read the details shown in tiny print above:

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    “If you do not wish to receive a one-year subscription to Better Homes and Gardens (valued at $6) as part of your qualifying purchase, fill out the card, write “refund” and mail to BHG Refund…”

    So while it first appeared to him that he was getting the magazine as a free bonus in this specially marked package, he says “reading the fine print on the enclosed postcard makes it clear that I’ve ALREADY PAID for the subscription!”

    And that is our opinion too. By definition, you are only offered a refund for something you have already paid for. So, it seems the cost of the magazine was embedded in the purchase price of the sheets.

    We contacted the magazine’s publisher, Meredith Corp., and their vice president of corporate and brand communications provided the company’s position:

    The subscription is a gift included with purchase with a stated value of $6.00. The cost of the sheets is independent of the fact that there is a gift subscription that comes with the purchase. The consumer does not pay $6.00 for the subscription (BH&G licensed products at Walmart are not marked-up to cover the subscription value of $6.00).

    The company spokesperson went on to say that this promotion has been in use for over 10 years, it was approved by the entity best known for certifying that a publication’s circulation claims are accurate, and no consumer has ever complained.

    Whether the cost of the magazine was rolled into the purchase price or not, we can only guess that very few sheet buyers even know they are entitled to $6 back because of the inconspicuous way the refund option is disclosed. When we gave the company spokesperson two opportunities to reply that they would consider making the refund offer more conspicuous in the future, she did not say that they would.




    • • •

    May 11, 2020

    Bored at Home? Reading “Terms of Service” Agreements Will Fill Your Days!

    Filed under: Business,Humor,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:53 am

    Please Help Support Mouse Print*

    Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


    Most of us usually don’t have the time or patience to read a website’s “terms of service” (TOS) agreement. We simply click “agree” if we are even asked in the first place to consent to their various conditions. But now that we are all cooped up at home, we actually have the time to review those contracts. I know, you’d rather clean your kitchen counter one more time and wipe down all your groceries instead.

    Some of those policies are ridiculously long. The Microsoft TOS agreement, for example, runs over 15,000 words — just slightly shorter than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

    So, to help you visualize what a daunting task it would actually be to read the TOS agreements from 14 of America’s leading companies and websites, the Visual Capitalist created this infographic. It depicts the comparative length of each company’s policy and how long each would take to read.

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    Terms of Service

    Scroll down the chart OR Click to enlarge.

    These companies rely on the laziness of their customers who rarely take time to read the fine print of what they are agreeing to. And most times, the terms benefit the company more than you.




    • • •

    April 6, 2020

    Is This the Way to Give Workers a Bonus?

    Filed under: Business,Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:37 am

    Please Help Support Mouse Print*

    Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


    No doubt, many people are facing personal financial hardships because they have lost their job or are working reduced hours. But many companies are stepping up continuing to pay workers or even offering extra pay.

    One such company is the closeout retail chain Ocean State Job Lot (OSJL) with 139 stores throughout the Northeast. In an email to customers last week, their CEO told of hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions of food and protective medical equipment their company has made.

    He also noted a $2 an hour pay increase for workers, an additional bonus, and a more generous employee discount program.

    There was one unusual disclosure in the letter, however.

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    OSJL- letter

    The company is financing the bonus to employees by automatically tacking on a two-percent surcharge to every shopper’s bill at the checkout. While you can opt-out, how many people even realize that they are being surcharged in the first place? Many won’t see the signs nor have carefully read the email. And how awkward and embarrassing to have to say to the very person this money is intended to help that you don’t want to contribute.

    While we applaud OSJL for its very generous contributions to hospitals and veterans organizations, in our view, the customer contribution for an employee bonus should be voluntary — opt-in — just like this chain does for the other causes it asks customers to support during the year.

    Contrast their surcharge approach with the voluntary method being taken by the Daily Table in Boston. Their nonprofit mini-supermarkets, created by the former CEO of Trader Joe’s, buy soon-to-expire food from manufacturers and stores. They cook some of it and prepare single-portion meals for the lower-income shoppers that frequent their stores. Last week, the Daily Table sent out an urgent email plea to customers asking them to help pay their employees an emergency aid bonus of $2 an hour which was not in their budget. MrConsumer was happy to contribute.

    So what do you think? Should stores be able to automatically tack on a surcharge to their customers’ bills to help finance an employee bonus, or should they simply just ask shoppers to support their employees through voluntary contributions?




    • • •

    March 16, 2020

    Is it a News Story or an Advertisement?

    Filed under: Business,Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:00 am

    Please Help Support Mouse Print*

    Edgar Dworsky For 25 years, Consumer World, the creator of Mouse Print*, has served readers with the latest consumer news, money-saving tips, and independent investigations. It is your generosity (and not advertising nor corporate contributions) that keeps Mouse Print* and Consumer World available as free consumer resources. So MrConsumer turns to you and humbly asks for your support again this year. Your gift will be most appreciated.


    More and more online news sites seem to be blurring the line between bona fide news and stories that seem more like advertisements.

    Last fall, we demonstrated how some Tribune newspapers published product reviews naming the “best” products in a particular but sometimes obscure category, while the publisher quietly earned a commission on the sale of each one shown. Making money may have been a big motivation behind the columns.

    Now Business Insider, a popular online site featuring business news stories, is publishing some articles that seem more like promotions than news features.

    For example, last week they published this story:

    Ally -10 more accounts

    Starting in the second paragraph, the reporter touts Ally Bank and the 11 high-yield savings accounts that she has opened there:

    I earn interest on the money that’s sitting in that account, and it feels like I won a prize every time I check it.

    My husband and I have 11 high-yield savings accounts with Ally, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Ally’s online interface makes it easy to see how much I have saved for each goal, and how much I’ve earned in interest this year — currently $44.31.

    Say what? You have 11 accounts at Ally and all you’ve made is a measily $44? (We wrote to the reporter to ask if all that was really true, but she did not respond.)

    In the story, not a negative word is said about Ally. The reporter mainly extols the virtues of high-yield savings accounts and the one at Ally Bank, but ignores the fact that more than three dozen other banks tracked by DepositAccounts.com pay higher rates of interest on savings accounts than Ally does.

    Toward the end of the story, there is an embedded advertisement. Can you guess what bank is being advertised there?

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    Ally ad

    That fine print says that a company called SmartAsset has placed this ad and earns revenue from it, as one might expect.

    Business Insider then posts a disclaimer but only after the end of the story:

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    disclaimer

    So Business Insider gets a cut of the commissions when readers open an Ally Bank account. Or perhaps 11 of them.

    What is surprising is that back in October, Business Insider published two other similar pieces about Ally Bank where different reporters each touted their experiences with the same bank (and did not include criticism, nor any comparisons to other banks with high-yield accounts):

    “I opened a high-yield savings account with online bank Ally to earn 20 times more on my money, and it’s safe to say I’m obsessed”

    and

    “I ditched my bank when I got married to earn 200 times more with an Ally high-yield savings account, and now I’d tell anyone to try it”

    Exactly how many first person testimonial articles touting Ally Bank is Business Insider planning to publish? Could all these stories really be more about making money for Business Insider, Smart Asset, and Ally Bank rather than serving readers with a useful, objective analysis of high-yield savings accounts and the pros and cons of various providers?

    Apparently a marketing theory gaining traction suggests that publishers can increase their their income by filling webpages with more “commerce content” — product-centric stories rather than traditional news stories or sponsored stories or ads. When viewers read these positive stories and if tracking reveals they bought the product or service, the publisher is compensated. According to one company in this business, Skimlinks, the most advanced publishers can derive 25-percent of their revenue this way.

    The problem for readers is poor disclosure. Publishers should be upfront and disclose financial ties right at the top of stories, so we can better distinguish articles designed to sell us stuff from conventional editorial content.

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has two sets of guidelines that call for clear and conspicuous disclosure — one when commercial content is made to look like conventional editorial content (Native Advertising Guidelines) and the other when there is a financial connection between a presenter of information and the subject of that information (Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines).

    We asked all the parties involved (Business Insider, Ally Bank, and Smart Asset) to explain what’s going on here. Are these bona fide news stories or advertisements? Who provided the story and who is paying whom? And do any of them think that readers are being put on clear notice of the underlying commercial nature of them?

    Business Insider did not respond directly, but through SmartAsset provided this statement:

    Business Insider’s personal finance reporters covered Ally as a product they would recommend, which is their standard practice. In lieu of affiliate links – which are common when it comes to “commerce content” – SmartAsset was used to sell ads against these stories. Any ad revenue generated by such coverage occurred independently of and only after the reporters’ decision to write about Ally.

    For its part, SmartAsset (the company which placed the Ally ad), said it did not write the stories, nor pay Business Insider to write them. It only shares revenue with them.

    Lastly, Ally Bank said it was not aware of the three stories above before they were published. It says it neither paid Business Insider nor SmartAsset to run them. It does pay SmartAsset to list its deposit rates on various websites.

    So, what’s a savvy reader to do? Look more closely at content (stories, blog posts, etc.) even on respected news websites. Ask yourself why is this being posted? Is it truly conveying objective information, including both pros and cons? Are other competing products or services compared? Is there an ad or link within the content directly related to the subject of the story? Are there any disclosures that might reveal a hidden financial connection?

    For our part, we will be bringing the concepts and issues related to “commerce content” to the attention of the FTC as they explore what changes should be made to their testimonial guidelines. You can participate in their process here.




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