Sponsored content tends to be benign, if not bloodless, content.
A marketer either pays a publisher to distribute some corporate-penned post or picks up the bill for a story to be considered cool by association. It's boring, by design.
But not on Upworthy:
"Watch the Spread of Walmart Across the Country in One Horrifying GIF" is the title of one article within Upworthy's "Workonomics" section that's sponsored by labor union AFL-CIO.
Others call out McDonald's for its employees' low pay. These types of critical posts may not be an easy sell for the average CMO, but they're exactly the kind of thing that gets shared on Facebook and Twitter. And that's the point.
"Our goal in this process was not to advertise for the AFL-CIO or to promote companies," said AFL-CIO digital strategies director Nicole Aro. "It was to instigate conversations that are happening around what people feel in their everyday lives."
While the AFL-CIO seems happy with the campaign, they had no hand in its creation. Unlike the typical sponsored content deal, Upworthy has complete editorial autonomy. "We even write the contract in such a way that we can be critical of the particular advertiser in the section," said Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley.
Upworthy's sponsored-content deals are unusually laissez-faire. For a separate section on global health and poverty sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the only limitation is that posts can't be political otherwise they would violate the non-profit organization's tax status.
And while some publishers and advertisers stipulate that sponsored content can't skew negative no matter who makes it, Upworthy has no such condition. Not that Mr. Koechley or Ms. Aro consider the posts running on "Workonomics" to be negative attack ads.
"If we felt Upworthy was attacking a company, that would be a serious consideration in our partnership. But I don't think [posts like this one calling out McDonald's] is actually doing that," Ms. Aro said.
To be fair, Upworthy does its share of praising corporate goodness. Another "Workanomics" post lavishly praises Costo for its commitment to hiring workers with with "special needs".
Rather than a form of native advertising, Mr. Koechley considered the sponsored section akin to how media organizations like NPR and PBS find companies to directly subsidize their work.
"We think about what are the things we think are important in the world," he said. "Then we look for underwriters to support our effort to cover those ideas more. We wanted to go deeper into the economics of work and labor and the middle class and found the AFL-CIO as the underwriter to sponsor a curator to focus on that section."