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.