Readers may have been confused Sunday by an advertisement for UTA that used what appeared to be a real news story in both the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune. The "story" was, in fact, the creation of an advertising agency and should have been labeled an advertisement.
Editors for both newspapers expressed displeasure with the blurring of the line separating ads and articles.
"Had it been labeled an advertisement, that would have been better," said Richard D. Hall, Deseret News managing editor. "It seems to me that at best the advertisement was confusing and at worst it was deceitful. Either way, there's no benefit to the reader, and we just avoid anything that blurs the line between editorial content and advertising. Usually, if there's a questionable ad, it's referred to us, but we didn't see this one."
"We like to have 'paid advertisement' in a prominent spot so people are not confused. The problem is, the top part looks like an ad and the bottom part has the appearance of a story," Tribune editor Jay Shelledy said. "It always bothers me when there is confusion on advertising vs. editorial content."
The "news story" was about a naughty little girl named Patricia Needleman who was trying her parents' patience. Superimposed over the "story" was part of a list of reasons to use mass transit rather than drive a car. It was intended to be "far-out enough" that readers would know it was part of the ad, according to Brian Rasmussen of R&R Partners, the ad agency that created it.
"The intent was to draw attention to the benefits of using transit," said Kris McBride, spokesman for UTA. "The story was intended to be so far out that people would understand it's not a real news story. The furthest thing we want to do is hurt anyone's credibility."
Advertising director Ed McCaffery of Newspaper Agency Corp., which handles advertising for both newspapers, said that the ad should have carried the word "advertisement" at the bottom, given the fact it looked like a news story. If the ad runs again, he said, it will be clearly labeled. But the file came into NAC in an electronic format, and no one realized how it would look.
Rasmussen said his agency did its best to make the "story" look as real as possible, even researching which typeface each newspaper uses in its editorial copy. From that point of view, he said, "we take this as a victory." In fact, an NAC staffer called to apologize to Rasmussen that the ad spilled over into a "news story."
Reader Barbara Crowley was among those who questioned the story's validity. The woman, visiting Utah from Chicago, called the Deseret News Sunday to see if the story was real. "I thought it had to be a joke," she said. "But it never did occur to me that it's part of the advertisement. I find that disturbing. It's not appropriate, in my mind."