Mercury News renounces microscopic ad label

By Michael Stoll
Posted Nov 21, 2005

Top: An ad is laid out like news (click here to see a larger image). Bottom: Squint to see the disclaimer.

The U.S. Treasury engraves modern dollars with "microprinting" -- miniscule text that's hard to read and harder to copy -- to make it easier to spot a forgery. When typographical shrinkage appears in a major newspaper, however, it can actually make it more difficult to distinguish phony from genuine.

A page in the San Jose Mercury News on Nov. 8 had all the trappings of a news article informing readers about what seemed like a great deal: "rare" uncut sheets of real money, pitched as a perfect collectible Christmas gift that might be worth thousands someday.

But the page was actually an ad. While it was tagged with a disclaimer -- "Special advertisement feature" -- the type was so small that readers with less-than-perfect eyesight would need a magnifying glass to read it. It was about the same size as the fine print on a $1 bill, the part where it says, "This note is legal tender ..." The ad disclaimer was also printed over a gray bar, further diminishing its legibility.

Upon reviewing the ad, David Satterfield, the managing editor of the Mercury News, immediately determined that it violated the paper's policy, which explicitly states such material "must have the word 'Paid Advertisement' set above the ad content in Newton type no smaller than 14 points." The label on the page appeared to be about half that size. The policy also requires the ad to be enclosed in a two-point-thick border, which this ad was not.

Mr. Satterfield said another full-page ad that runs every Wednesday in the paper's A section was "a bit tougher to call." The ad for the American Ratings Corporation, a business that recommends contractors, retailers and service providers, in some versions also sports a news-like headline, byline, a thumbnail photo of a faux "Savvy Consumer" columnist by the name of Chris Bjorklund and text in newspaper-style columns. However, it looks slightly more ad-like than the money ad, being set inside a 16th-inch-wide border and prominently featuring a company logo for its "Diamond Certified" seal of approval.

Another ad, this one for the American Ratings Corporation, looks somewhat newsy (click here to see a larger image).

"I don't think this ad looks as much like editorial material," Mr. Satterfield wrote in an e-mail. "But if there's any question in the minds of readers, we probably should identify it as such."

Credibility at stake

Many newspapers have rules requiring the prominent labeling of ads so that readers can clearly tell the material doesn't come from the newsroom. Journalists work hard to be seen as free from conflicts of interest in their reporting on businesses, and if readers can't easily tell the ads from the news, the news itself may be seen as less trustworthy.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists demands such clear partitioning. It urges journalist to "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

That standard has been a stumbling block for a variety of Bay Area newspapers. The San Francisco Examiner recently agreed to label as advertising a restaurant column written by an ad salesman who openly admitted he used it to help him add accounts. The Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune have occasionally published ads masquerading as news, with faint or absent warning labels. Knight Ridder’s Daily News chain of free tabloids, headquartered in Palo Alto, has routinely asked its ad salespeople to boost local business by posing as objective journalists and writing newsy-looking columns.

But, the Mercury News and Chronicle have generally enforced clear labeling in auto, real estate and other sections that run so-called "advertorial"-style ads.

Advertisers often press news media to present retail pitches as objective reporting because it enhances an ad's persuasive power, but journalism ethics require clear separation of the two functions.

Kelly McBride, who teaches journalism ethics to reporters and editors at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., put it this way in a recent conversation with Grade the News: "If one reader ends up feeling duped, the newspaper’s credibility is diminished."

Same ad, different approach

An ad for uncut sheets of money that was nearly identical to the one in the Mercury News ran in the San Francisco Chronicle the following Sunday, Nov. 13. But there, the page was topped, twice, in words slightly larger than body type: "PAID ADVERTISEMENT."

"Anything that looks like this needs to be labeled aggressively," said Steve Proctor, the Chronicle's deputy managing editor for news. "It's unacceptable not to label an ad clearly."

Mr. Proctor added that such labeling was especially important in ads that mimic editorial content. "This looks like a news story. I'm personally opposed to these kinds of ads in general."

Advertisers routinely attempt to copy the look and feel of news, and this ad was no exception.

It bore the headline, "Hot off the Gov't Press: public handover of rare full sheets of money now underway / Public can be first to get this year's hottest Christmas Gift: uncut sheets of real money." The page was dominated by reproductions of small-denomination bills for sale.

It also had the byline, "By Mary Beth Andrews, Universal Media Syndicate." Universal Media Syndicate is, according to its Web site, an ad-placement agency, affiliated with the uncut currency's seller, World Reserve Monetary Exchange. Both Web sites are registered to the same person in the Canton, Ohio, area.

The text quoted "Stephen Speakman, National Director of Hotline Operations," who urged readers to call as soon as possible, since supplies were limited. He explained that investments in 1928 one-dollar bills "have increased in value by over 6,400%." The implication was: Wait long enough and you could be wealthy.

The ad's breathless claims didn't stop there. It also implied that this was a one-time offer. The Mercury News ad on Nov. 8 promised that, "At precisely 10:00 a.m. today, the National Hotline first opens." The ad stated that the offer would be available "for the next 48 hours."

So did the nearly identical ad in the Chronicle on Nov. 13, more than 48 hours later. The only apparent difference was a service code at the bottom of the page.

The company's Web site explains what the ad did not -- that $144 worth of crisp, uncut bills can be purchased for $308.95, including shipping and handling. The company will even throw in four leather portfolios for free.

But the notes are hardly, as the ad claims, "so rare, banks don't even have them." Banks don't have them because they are novelty items that cost more than their face value, and collectibles are not their business. World Reserve Monetary Exchange buys large sheets in bulk from the Treasury, cuts them up into pages of four, and sells them at a profit, a sales representative at the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing said.

While Universal Media Syndicate has run ads in other newspapers across the country, it has come under sharp criticism in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Cleveland, Ohio's Channel 5 for, among other things, laying out ads to look like news.

A representative of Universal Media Syndicate could not be reached last week.