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TRAVEL ADVERTORIALS: Gray area as PR agents play reporters

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ANALYSIS: TRAVEL ADVERTORIALS. With tourism being a multi-billion dollar industry collecting the spending from 1 billion tourists in 2012, the hunt at travel agencies, airlines and hotel bookers for new customers is at the boiling point. The media has of course seen the trend, and the number of glossy magazines, websites with amazing photos and travel phone apps is increasing by the minute. Being a part of all this, the Traveling Reporter as well as, most likely, every other travel website editor and notable blogger are hit by a variety of suggestions as to what to write and report about.

Advertising online and in papers or magazines is one thing, but today’s travel industry is using much more elaborate ways to reach their potential new customers. One is the so-called advertorials, pieces of text and sometimes pictures that look like an ordinary feature or news story, but that have been written by a PR agent or an advertising spin doctor.

The reader might not immediately notice the difference, but the purpose with advertorials is always to have you buy something (like a flight ticket to a certain destination), or to use a specific service (such as a flight search website), whereas the purpose of, at least, good old journalism is to tell a story or a piece of news as objectively as possible. Blogs are supposedly an important target for spreaders of advertorials – the material published on blogs is generally more personal than that on newspaper websites, and bloggers do not necessarily adhere to normal basic rules of journalistic conduct.

 

So what does the process behind advertorials aimed for blogs and travel websites look like? During the last few months, the Traveling Reporter was approached with three suggestions for various stories that senders wanted published.

1. The PR manager from an outfit presenting itself as a luxury travel organizer suggested a “guest post” or, alternatively, an interview with the firm’s owner about a hotel complex in Mexico, at which the company was offering the possibility to win a free three night stay.

Excerpt from the email about Mexico.

 

2. Another email appeared that offered a story telling readers how easy it is to travel if you manage to get a pilot’s license. The sender of the message, a flight school, was using a PR agent to spread it.

Excerpt from email regarding pilot’s licenses.

 

3. The sender behind the third example went ahead using a somewhat different approach. A comment was posted with a post on the Traveling Reporter’s Editor’s Blog, operated by me. Telling a story of a discussion with colleagues about some of the Reporter’s travel stories, the sender, “John Anderson”, suggested he, or she, would write a guest post. When it was emailed later, the writer’s biography included a link to a specific flight search website.

Interestingly enough, a quick check on Google revealed that the very same comment had been posted on several other websites, though sometimes signed by a female name, shown below:

One version of the comment.

Another version of the blog comment.

 

These examples can be viewed as harmless attempts by struggling firms in the travel industry to gain some attention on a market with rock-hard competition. But much is at stake elsewhere, too. Indeed, the business of travel journalism does sometimes receive criticism for sending reporters on journeys to exotic destinations payed for by travel companies, supposedly blurring the journalist’s objectivity. But while no serious editor would ever dream about running any of these stories mentioned above, travel bloggers lay open for attacks. Bloggers are always looking for ways to increase visitor numbers, and accepting ads disguised as free stories might be tempting to some.

In the end, readers and, in this case, potential travelers are those suffering the most, as they are served stories with false objectivity. But, one can argue, isn’t travel journalism and travel blogs all about serving non-objective opinions about destinations anyway? Yes, to a large extent. But, those opinions should be originating from the blogger or reporter writing them. Not by an unidentified corporation or travel agency with its own, hidden agenda.

If advertorials are published, for the website in question to keep its credibility, they should be filed as ads. And charged money for. In which case, most likely, the majority of them would not be published anyway.

 

 

The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.