One of these AOL Today "news" items isn't like the others -- and it's labeled. But . . .
One of these "newsy" items is not like the others --
[Click to enlarge.]
I know I'm supposed to be humiliated to admit that I still use an AOL e-mail address, which marks me as some sort of pathetic, antique computer naïf. If I were foolish enough to use it to, say, apply for a job, I would be laughed out of consideration just for this. Still, perhaps you'll pardon my observation that none of the other e-mail systems I've been exposed to seem to me any better. (I think "worse" is the word I'm groping for.) For one application I'm obliged to use Gmail, and I hate it.
One thing we AOL-ers, er, enjoy -- for better or worse -- is regular exposure to AOL's "AOL Today" screen, which includes a selection of "news" or "news"-like items, on the order of ten screens' worth, with a few on each screen. Pictured above is one I screen-grabbed the other day. Note that it was the first of the set of screens lined up at that moment, so these were presumably what somebody in the AOL shop judged at the time their "leading" stories.
Now I usually do glance at whatever's thrown at me on these screens. They cycle automatically, so if I happen to linger on the "AOL Today" page long enough, it may cycle to the later screens, and if it does, I'll probably glance at those too. It's interesting to see what the functionary in charge thinks is of interest to AOL-ers, and not infrequently there's an item I'm genuinely curious about.
And on the day in question I got snookered in a way I quickly realized I've been snookered before, which is why I'm writing about it now.
Probably you're a more careful reader than I am. I confess that the kind of attention I do give these screens is of the quick-glance variety. And the item that stopped me in this group is the last one: the "DOCTORS DISCUSS KNEE HEALTH ONE." You know, the one that says: "Find out the shocking discovery that has the medical community baffled & joint sufferers jumping for joy." And below it, with a link, "See new ingredient."
The phrase "knee health" is pretty much certain to grab my attention, and it wasn't till I was a few words into the little text that I realized I'd been here before. These folks are, of course, trying to sell that "new ingredient."
As I was cursing them out to myself, I looked closer and saw that this item is quite plainly labeled "ADVERTISEMENT." Except that it's labeled in a way that I suspect I'm far from the only reader who's missed it. More than once now. Because apart from that "ADVERTISEMENT" signifier, the item is designed to look exactly like all the other AOL "newsy" items -- like the one just to the left of it, to pick an obvious example.
When I started in the magazine business more decades ago than any of dare to imagine, it was a point not just of pride but of basic publishing integrity that it must never be possible to confuse editorial content and advertising. Advertisers would never be allowed to use a layout or typography that looked anything like those used for editorial content, just as, in the larger picture, important as advertising was to our magazine (hey, it paid our salaries!), the editorial and advertising departments functioned just about completely independently
I have to say "just about completely" because at my lowly level, I wouldn't have had knowledge of words whispered in the ears of the top-level editors. And I also have to enter the caveat that, as I learned by occasionally glancing at some of the reader mail we got, we had a lot of readers who didn't themselves grasp the distinction between editorial content (i.e., an "article") and advertising (i.e., an "ad"). I would see constant references to what was in fact an ad as an "article," and vice versa.
Well, you can do only so much in the Dept. of Maintaining the Integrity of Editorial Content. But in the years since, I've noticed that once strongly maintained distinction more and more blurred in every way canny advertisers, ad salesmen, and I'm afraid newspaper and magazine publishers as well can imagine and think they can get away with. And I can't even accuse AOL of any unethical behavior here -- the pitch for the magical knee-health "ingredient," after all, is clearly labeled "ADVERTISEMENT," isn't it?
Except that at least twice I didn't see it, at least initially. And I'm here to tell you that the layout of this Web page is designed to make the ad look like a news item -- like, in fact, one of AOL's "TOP STORIES." The word that springs into my mind is "shameful." But I guess that just marks me as a quaint old-timer.
And so it goes.