Content Strategy

Trust suffers when branded content misleads consumers

When everything is advertising

“Do we seek out things to covet? No, we begin by coveting things we see every day.” Perhaps in an alternate universe, Hannibal Lecter was a Content Marketing Strategist instead of a Psychiatrist/Serial Killer. Branded content touches on the most covetous parts of our selves. It often shows an idealized view of the world and then reminds you, subtly, that that it could be yours. If you buy the newest iPhone, you too will be able to shoot films like a professional. The only reason you have not found success in your fitness goals is you don’t have a home gym, but the Tonal can solve that! Adventure IS out there, and REI has what you need to find it.

Ulrike Gretzel defines branded content as “paid content that is created and delivered outside of traditional advertising means, using formats familiar to consumers, with the intent of promoting a brand – either implicitly or explicitly – through the means of controlled storytelling.”

This style of marketing often focuses on the values of the brand, or what the brand wants to represent, instead of a specific product. In two surveys of 220 PR professionals conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 42% of participants “were concerned about the increasing prevalence of branded content.” While nearly half of the participants found the saturation of branded content to be cause for concern, more than 80% said they believed it was a somewhat to very effective marketing strategy, and three quarters stated that they use some form of branded content strategies in their campaigns. These responses show that at least some portion of those who believe the prevalence of branded content is troubling also use it in their own strategies and believe that it is effective. Ethical concerns are fine, but this is business.

Are some industries more unethical than others?

According to Gretzel, 47% of the PR professionals surveyed by USC Annenberg believed that some organizations or industries should not be allowed to use branded content, including tobacco, hate groups, political organizations, alcohol and firearms. In the article What is ethical SEO, Jamie Indigo leans on Kant as her framework for questioning the ethics of marketing, asking: does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes? As Indigo reminds us, “if the answer is no, the action is unethical.”

If we’re looking through Kant’s lens, I’d suggest that all un-labeled branded content is unethical. The single greatest issue that I see with branded content is that it is misleading and therefore manipulative. Research into the addictive properties of smartphones and social media has shown that consuming marketing content, especially through social media, can hijack user attention. Content that is created to consume the user with a fantasy of personal improvement through products certainly puts the goals of the company before the goals of the individual.

This view of branded content as unethical is not widely held by the PR professionals surveyed by USC Annenberg. Gretzel notes that while nearly half believed it was difficult to distinguish branded content from regular editorial content, “only 15% thought using branded content was somewhat or very unethical.” Of course, these are the same people who make a living creating branded content strategies and no one wants to admit that what they do for a living may be unethical.

Avoiding the ethical abyss

In researching this post, I stumbled upon the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. Edelman is “a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations.” For the last two decades, Edelman has studied the shifting trends of people’s trusts in government, media, business, and NGOs around the world and annually distill their findings into their report called the Edelman Trust Thermometer.

The theme of the 2020 Barometer, published on January 9, 2020 was the importance of balancing competence and ethical behavior. The report shows that 66% of individuals worry that technology will make it impossible to know what they are seeing or hearing is real, 57% believe the media they use is contaminated with untrustworthy info, and that none of the four main societal institutions are seen as both ethical and competent, with government and media seen as neither. Adding the pandemic and the 2020 U.S. elections to the mix, the 2021 Trust Barometer is “declaring information bankruptcy.”

What does this mean for companies? According to Edelman, most people see business as competent but not ethical. Trust in institutions is at an all-time-low. It is now more important than ever for brands to be seen as ethical and trustworthy, and backing a marketing strategy that feels unauthentic or makes consumers feel misled is courting disaster.

If I’m giving you marketing content but trying to make it look like editorial content — in the hope that you won’t be able to tell the difference — then I’m going to quickly lose your trust.

(Willets, 2013)

Ann Willets and Ulrike Gretzel both offer thoughts on how to remove the manipulation factor from branded content. These suggestions include:

  • Branded content should always be explicitly labeled
  • Consumers should be able to block branded content on online platforms
  • Do not remove negative user comments on paid content
  • Allow news staff to write editorial content and marketing staff to handle branded content

Advertising is everywhere and we likely won’t change that. But as consumers, we can hold advertisers to the standards that we see fit. By increasing our literacy about how we are being advertised to, speaking out about what we will accept, and withholding the one thing they need from us, at the end of the day – the buck stops here.


Willets, A. (2013, August 27). The ethics of branded content. PRSA. https://apps.prsa.org/Intelligence/Tactics/Articles/view/10318/1082/The_ethics_of_branded_content#.YDLHIpNKjuQ

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