PolitiFact Gives BuzzFeed Sponsored Post a 'Pants on Fire'

BuzzFeed Says It Works to Ensure Native Ads Are Factual

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If "native" ads are designed to mimic editorial content, should readers expect the same rigorous attention to detail that they find in news stories?

Careful who you sell that to
Careful who you sell that to Credit: Bloomberg

In other words, should sponsored content be -- you know -- accurate?

"Of course," BuzzFeed spokeswoman Ashley McCollum said. "Readers expect accuracy from us."

BuzzFeed, a vanguard of native advertising online, caught flak this week after one of its listicles, sponsored by Mini USA, raised the hackles of PolitiFact Rhode Island, as The Washington Post's Erik Wemple reported last night.

The story, "11 Awesome Facts You Never Knew About Rhode Island," claimed that Providence, R.I., had made it "illegal to sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday."

As luck would have it, Rhode Island is among 10 states with its own PolitiFact, a watchdog group that typically scrutinizes politicians' statements. PolitiFact Rhode Island, which the Providence Journal oversees, pounced on the list. It did not seem to notice that the post was paid content, calling it a "feature" on BuzzFeed ("which," PolitiFact said, "regards itself as a legitimate news website").

After checking local ordinances and calling city hall, the group determined that the "awesome fact" may be awesome but is not a fact. "Oral hygiene fans can breathe a minty-fresh sigh of relief," it wrote. "A toothbrush and toothpaste can legally be purchased together any Sunday in Providence."

The site gave the veracity of the claim a ranking of "Pants on Fire."

Ms. McCollum said BuzzFeed did its due diligence on the item, which its creative team -- a separate group of writers from its newsroom -- sought to fact check.

"We called all the right people," she said.

The BuzzFeed creative team spoke with an archivist, who said the purported law was likely from colonial times, according to Ms. McCollum. But the archivist was not able to actually confirm or deny the law's existence, she said.

BuzzFeed later added a caveat to the beginning of the item, "While some believe it is an urban myth" as well as the word "reportedly."

Regardless of how its phrased, or whether it's true, the attention from PolitiFact and the Washington Post is likely driving even more traffic to the post -- a win, it seems, for the company that sponsored it.

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