A Word, Please: The not-so-subtle indicators of advertorials


A sea change has taken place in your reading material in recent years. A decade ago, most of the feature articles you read — light pieces on everything from travel to fashion to personal finance — were created with two main considerations in mind: Is this something you, the reader, need to know and is this something you, the reader, want to know?

That’s how newspapers, magazines and news and feature websites traditionally created value for their advertisers. One set of people, editorial, were given the task of looking out for you, thereby earning your eyeballs. A separate set of people had the task of making money off your hard-earned attentions by selling ads near the articles. There was no spillover. No blending of objectives. The articles were exclusively for you, the reader.

Advertorials, articles overtly promoting a product or service, were the exception. But readers could spot those a mile off. And most were so snooze-inducingly promotional that they couldn’t hold your attention for more than a second, anyway.

Enter native advertising. Today, countless thousands of features and even news articles are created not by independent editorial teams but by people working directly for advertisers. Aside from a little note up top saying “sponsored” or “advertisement” or something similar, the articles strive to be indistinguishable from the old-fashioned ones.

They aim to offer something of value — information or entertainment — to the reader. But your interests aren’t the sole force behind creating them. Instead, the content is conceptualized with the goal of earning your eyeballs while at the same time creating a friendlier environment for the sponsor’s advertisements. Usually, the articles don’t mention the sponsor at all.

The only difference is the hidden agenda.

Most of my freelance copy-editing work is in native content. Before that, I worked in traditional editorial. So I’ve become attuned to some of the subtle differences between real, written-for-you editorial content and native written-for-you-and-also-for-the-advertiser content.

Here, from a copy editor’s perspective, are some of the little clues that the article you’re reading is native content and not traditional editorial.

Wrong words

English has tons of easily confused words: forego and forgo, eke and eek, flair and flare, compliment and complement. Traditional editorial teams work hard to keep these straight. Native content producers not so much.

A missing ‘when’ or ‘where’

Trained journalists always cover the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “why” of a story. Content producers are more likely to leave out two of those: when and where. So if you’re reading a light-hearted feature article about a single mom who went back to school, but it doesn’t mention the city she lives in or the year she enrolled, it’s a clue you may not be reading real editorial. And if it fails to mention her age, that could be another clue.

A passion for semicolons

Less-experienced writers and editors think mastery of the semicolon is a hallmark of professionalism, so they flaunt their knowledge. It’s ironic because seasoned pros think that excessive semicolon use is the mark of an amateur.

Lots of dashes, especially between complete clauses

Dashes set off information parenthetical to a main clause or indicate an abrupt change in structure. So it’s a stretch to use them to connect two clauses that could stand on their own as sentences.

Initials in parentheses

You know how, when writing about the National Coalition for the Advancement of Whatnot, writers will insert after the name “(NCAW)”? Well, that’s a big clue that you may not be reading real editorial. Why? Because this practice is discouraged by Associated Press, New York Times and Los Angeles Times styles.

Backward-facing apostrophes

If you type an apostrophe at the beginning of a term, like the ’80s or ’til, your word processor may change it to an open single quotation mark. Seasoned editors know to fix those so that they curve like a backward letter C, not a regular C. And ’til is a red flag, too. Style guides and editors agree that “till” is preferable.

Using 30 words to say something that could be said in 10

Enough said.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at