The problem with BuzzFeed’s sponsored posts

BuzzFeed is not just upending conventional wisdom on how Internet publishers can make money with its innovative digital ads; the lists, quizzes and posts it creates with advertisers show brands they can “actually create something people will engage with,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told the Guardian’s Heidi N. Moore.

That’s good news for marketers, but its sponsored posts are also a win for readers who might otherwise flee from advertorial content. Though clearly marked, they look and feel like BuzzFeed’s editorial content, and they’re not sharing screen space with ads trumpeting the fat-burning properties of açai berries.

That’s due in part to Peretti’s philosophy: His “open disdain for an old stalwart of media advertising — the banner ad, blinking loudly above editorial content — is almost palpable,” Moore writes.

But BuzzFeed often appears to have a palpable distaste for copyright law as well.

Last week, BuzzFeed riled up Reddit users with a Samsung-sponsored post called “14 Amazing Photos That Are Totally Not Photoshopped”; after those users complained, BuzzFeed switched to photos taken from Flickr, then took the post down.

“We really regret that we made these awesome, creative people upset,” Peretti told Mashable reporter Alex Fitzpatrick.

The thing is, BuzzFeed regularly helps itself to photos from other awesome, creative people for sponsored posts. And that sponsored content, Peretti told Moore, accounts for “nearly all the company’s revenues,” she writes.

A post sponsored by the Nevada Tourism Commission, for example, included content from Wikipedia, from an RV forum, from the Reddit-favored image hosting site Imgur as well as photos taken from the blogs of two professional photographers. One of them, Robert Dawson, told Poynter that BuzzFeed didn’t ask permission to use his photo. BuzzFeed originally credited his blog, but the credit on the photo now links to Shutterstock. Another post sponsored by Taco Bell includes four photos plucked from Reddit.

Peretti has argued before that its photo posts are a “transformative use” of content, and that expansive view of copyright can sometimes lead to intra-site dissonance, like when Matt Buchanan blasted Instagram for proposed changes to its terms of service that users thought would allow the photo-sharing service to use their pictures in ads. The changes came “at a time when Instagram still feels small and personal,” Buchanan wrote in the piece. “A time when people still trusted it.”

BuzzFeed’s readers, in turn, trust the site to unzip the marvels of the Web for them. And if they’re upset BuzzFeed’s monetizing their delight, they’re hiding it well from business reporters; stories about BuzzFeed read like dispatches from a strange world where publishers are beloved by readers and investors. The site reportedly had revenues of $20 million last year, just raised $19 million and by some accounts still has $15 million in the bank from a previous funding round. And yet BuzzFeed keeps getting busted for snagging photos, a practice it inevitably vows to crack down on.

In September, BuzzFeed used a photo by the photographer Susan Seubert that had run in the New York Times in a post sponsored by Virgin Mobile. “Subsequently, photo agency Redux Pictures of New York got Buzzfeed to cough up an undisclosed licensing fee,” David Kravets reported in Wired. When asked about BuzzFeed’s use of copyrighted materials in its ads, Peretti “equated it to a ‘training’ problem,” Kravets wrote.

In a phone call with Poynter, Peretti declined to describe its training program. “We care a lot about creators, and we spend a huge amount on licensing photographs and want to do what’s right for the industry,” he said. When the site learned photographers were upset, “we immediately corrected the issue.”

As Mathew Ingram wrote late last week, it’s often hard to track down the owners of the content BuzzFeed favors: “It’s easy to see the site as the bad guy, taking people’s photos without asking and trying to make money from them — but the reality is that ‘remix culture’ or whatever we choose to call it has become commonplace online, for better or worse.”

And yet “the common etiquette of the Internet is not reflected in the law,” Verge Managing Editor Nilay Patel, who is also a copyright attorney, writes in an email to Poynter. The law still requires BuzzFeed to secure authorization for photos, he writes; BuzzFeed “could be a charity organization and still get in the same trouble — that the posts are sponsored content just makes them morally more suspect, not legally so.”

BuzzFeed’s not an average Internet user, no matter how deeply it understands them: Advertisers pay it to find the type of photos readers would like to use without permission themselves. Fixing problems after you publish is part of the Web’s fabric. But it doesn’t work as well when you’re helping Taco Bell sell Loaded Grillers. And after a while, promises to do better next time start to sound a little cheesy, too.

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  • L. McDonell

    I feel like a line is definitely being crossed. There is post after post about cute kittens then suddenly a brand name pops out in the title of a non-sponsored post, for example Taco Bell. I did a quick search “Does Taco Bell advertise on Buzzfeed” and yes, they do. – which make me mighty suspicious of the supposedly-not sponsored staff post: “The best of Taco Bell’s twitter account.” or “Taco Bell hints at release of a Cool Ranch Doritos Taco” which features animated gifs of famous people applauding. Hmmm.

  • Poynter

    Hi, L. Thanks for commenting. This is interesting, and we’ll follow up in a story we’re working on about sponsored content. I don’t think the Girl Scout cookie story is actually sponsored, but I understand why it might seem like it is. And the confusion itself poses an interesting question: Does that mean BuzzFeed is very effectively matching its editorial content with its sponsored content? The more confusing for readers, the better for advertisers potentially, as long as readers don’t feel manipulated. The way I can tell sponsored content on BuzzFeed is that the byline carries the name of the sponsor (or “partner” as they label it). So for example, Ragu is the sponsor here: More on this soon, Julie Moos/Director of Poynter Online

  • L. McDonell

    I just looked through pages and pages of content at Buzzfeed, and I didn’t see any posts clearly marked as *sponsored content,* although it was obvious some were. For instance, one of the top stories on Food is “Some questions for the new girl scout cookie” which is created by a buzzfeed staffer but is a very long ad for the cookie, with many links back to the girl scout cookie site. There is no logo, no indication it isn’t a “normal” post. So, now they are hiding the fact that some posts are advertisements? Seems like a dicey move. Do we have any rights as readers with regards to being presented an ad as “editorial” content?

  • Paul Watson

    So there is little distinction between an advertorial page using UGC and an article using UGC with ads around the article? Interesting point. Hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

  • Poynter

    Hi, Matthew. I haven’t noticed any prominent news orgs using other people’s material to create sponsored content or ads. Can you share some links (either in the comments or by email)? Thanks, Julie

  • ProducerMatthew

    This isn’t a BuzzFeed problem. This is a problem with every news organization that places advertisements or sponsorship around user-generated content — especially if they lift that content from social media platforms, offer the bare minimum of credit and plaster ads around it (or embed ads in slideshows). And, let’s be honest with ourselves, there are a lot of prominent news organizations doing this.