Ethics and Brand Content

In a chapter landing in 2016 in Ethics for a Digital Age, edited by Don Heider and Bastiaan Vanacker, graduate student Mike Mirer and I explore the emerging arena of brand publishing and the ethics questions that arise when the forms and practices of journalism are used in brand promotion.

Brand publishing refers to strategic communicators – advertisers, public relations practitioners, marketers – using storytelling to engage consumers for brands. For instance, the energy drink Red Bull has emerged as a brand content powerhouse through a YouTube channel devoted to covering extreme sports through video. Brands are pouring in millions on a bet that in a crowded information environment, this storytelling will net them a bigger, better and more engaged set of consumers. And news organizations as storied as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal now have brand content production houses that serve these messages alongside news products.

The question, then, becomes: What ethical responsibilities should be expected of brand content producers when they are using the forms – but not the norms – of journalism? Can audiences distinguish between brand messages and news messages? How does this kind of content challenge and shape traditional media ethics? Have we arrived at a moment when a mixed media ethics will subsume the professional ethics contested and honed in journalism over decades?

While the current chapter explores brand content in sports, the implications are much larger, including publishing by government officials and entities, corporations and interest groups.