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A negative story about Nestle posted today on the Guardian was partially funded by one of the food giant's competitors -- Mondelez International -- showing how sponsored content can put marketers in potentially embarrassing situations.
The story is headlined "Nestlé admits slavery in Thailand while fighting child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast." Just below the headline is a note that the piece is "Supported by Mondelez International." Mondelez, whose brands include Oreo and Cadbury, is also running several banner ads throughout the story plugging one of its sustainability programs called "the call for well-being."
While the juxtaposition of Mondelez's name near the headline makes it appear the company participated in a negative story about a competitor, Mondelez says that is not the case. "As with any publication, there's a strict separation between the advertising and the editorial content, so we do not have a say in the editorial content that is featured in that particular section," a Mondelez spokeswoman said in an email. She added that the article is part of a media partnership with the Guardian that supports the publication's "Sustainable Business Supply Chain" section that is "fully independent editorially."
But because large companies typically avoid calling out the competition in such a way -- especially involving a sensitive issue like this one -- the matter underscores how sponsored content programs can put marketers in uncomfortable situations.
Nestle did not respond to an email requesting comment on Monday afternoon. A representative of the Guardian referred to the publication's rules for "Supported By" content.
Mondelez's statement that it did not have editorial control -- even though it helps fund the section -- is supported by the Guardian's guidelines for "commercial content." The article is part of the Guardian's "sustainable business" series that covers the "social and environmental impacts of business," according to the publication. The Nestle story is classified as content in which stories are produced with funding from outside parties. Stories that are "supported by" outside parties, such as the Nestle story, are described as "editorially independent content."
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According to the Guardian, the content "is written and edited by Guardian and Observer journalists, or those approved by [Guardian News & Media], to the same standards expected in all of our journalism. [Guardian News & Media] will not show copy to funders for approval."
By contrast, stories marked "Paid content/paid for by" are "paid for and controlled by the advertiser," and don't involve staff journalists, according to the guidelines.
The Nestle story describes how the company last November "went public with the news it had found forced labor in its supply chains in Thailand and that its customers were buying products tainted with the blood and sweat of poor, unpaid and abused migrant workers." Still, the story includes a quote from Nick Grono, the chief executive of NGO the Freedom Fund, praising Nestle for "proactively coming out and admitting that they have found slavery in their business operations."
But the story later describes how Nestle was unsuccessful in an attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a lawsuit "seeking to hold them liable for the alleged use of child slaves in cocoa farming in the Ivory Coast." The story stated that "this puts the company in the unfortunate position of disclosing slavery in one part of its operations, while at the same time fighting through the courts to fend off accusations that it exists in another -- more profitable -- part of its business."