Newspapers and magazines have recognized for many years that there must be a clear distinction between content and advertising in the perceptions of readers. These entities not only have clear standards about these distinctions, but they also enforce a clear delineation between their sales departments and their news departments so that their sales efforts cannot influence (bias) their news reporting.

It is similar in the TV news business. Even as recently as last year, news organizations have been chastened with public outrage when Bush Administration video propoganda—created to look like real news broadcasts—was used by several news organizations as if it was an actual independent news clip. See the following article for details, for example (access costs money), THE MESSAGE MACHINE: How the Government Makes News; Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged News. By DAVID BARSTOW AND ROBIN STEIN; ANNE E. KORNBLUT CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FOR THIS ARTICLE. NY Times: March 13, 2005

News organizations don’t follow these ethical practices only because they believe in their sanctity. They follow these practices because the general public becomes outraged when news is seen as biased by financial interests or the influence of powerful elites.

Unfortunately, on the web—where the general public is being sorted into smaller and smaller subgroups—it is easier for organizations to deceive these micro-publics into believing that commercial messages come from independent unbiased sources.

With this in mind, I offer the following minimum standards of ethics for internet sellers and advertisers:

  1. Almost everyone who views your advertising should understand immediately that it is an advertisement.
  2. It is more ethical to offer independent content than sponsored content.
  3. It is more ethical to offer both independent and sponsored content than it is to offer sponsored content alone.
  4. It is more ethical to offer sponsored content and independent content if the financial benefits of the sponsored content are required to enable the production of the independent content.
  5. Readers/viewers must be able to immediately recognize which information is sponsored and which information is independent.
  6. Almost everyone who views sponsored content (web pages, white papers, articles, awards, best-of lists, etc.) should understand immediately that the information is being presented to sell or persuade the readers or viewers.
  7. The development of independent content should not be influenced by sponsoring entities.
  8. Authors must clearly acknowledge any relationships that may bias their work.

What else am I missing?

What do I have wrong?

What evidence of this do you see in the Workplace Learning-and-Performance Field?

What else, specifically, do we have to worry about? Any of the following (I’m just brainstorming)?

  • product placements in e-learning?
  • trade organization behaviors?
  • helping our learners distinguish truth from sales pitches?
  • conferences that offer sponsorships?
  • webinars that are sales pitches masquerading as information?
  • gurus that have vendor money in their pockets?
  • online communities based on sponsorship money?
  • white papers?
  • award programs?
  • vendor research?