Publications and broadcasters have rate cards despite laws prohibiting ads masquerading as newsDavid Barboza / Shanghai Apr 05, 2012,
Want a profile of your chief executive to appear in the Chinese version of Esquire? That will be about $20,000 a page, according to the advertising department of the magazine, which has a licensing agreement with the Hearst Corporation in the United States.
Need to get your top executive on a news programme by state-run China Central Television? Pay $4,000 a minute, says a network consultant who arranges such appearances.
A flattering article about your company in Workers’ Daily, the Communist Party’s propaganda newspaper? About $1 per Chinese character, the paper’s advertising agent said.
Though Chinese laws and regulations ban paid promotional material that is not labelled as such, the practice is so widespread that many publications and broadcasters even have rate cards listing news-for-sale prices.
And while Western companies and many Chinese journalists are loath to discuss the subject, public relations and advertising firms are sometimes surprisingly candid about their roles as brokers in buying flattering coverage, referred to here as “soft news” or “paid news.”
Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s biggest public relations and advertising agencies, acknowledged that it pays Chinese media outlets for client coverage in some categories.
A Chinese account manager for another American public relations firm was strikingly frank about paying for coverage, although she spoke only on condition of anonymity to avoid riling her industry colleagues and her employer.
“If you want more media coverage, that’s easy to do — we have plenty of channels to get your company shown on television, and in top magazines and newspapers,” she said in a telephone interview.
Media specialists, and Chinese journalists intent on playing by ethical rules, deplore the paid placements they say are all too common in the nation’s media.
“Corruption has become a lifestyle in today’s China,” said Sun Xupei, a journalism fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “But when it happens in journalism it’s even worse than other fields, because people feel there’s nothing they can really trust.”
Executives at the Chinese language version of Esquire magazine say they regularly publish soft news features that are essentially ads masquerading as news.
One example was a feature about a European audio company, Bang & Olufsen, that supplies equipment to Audi, the auto maker. Nothing in the magazine indicated that the Chinese Esquire had been paid to run it.
But the magazine received at least $10,000 a page for the five-page feature, according to the publication’s executives, who emailed images of it as an example of the paid genre. They, and others who helped produce the article, said Audi was involved in the payment.
Not all business and company profiles in Chinese media are planted and paid for, of course. But even when they are not, Chinese media organisations often have much laxer rules than many mainstream Western journalists for accepting payments from sources for news coverage.
The highly regarded Chinese newspaper, 21st Century Business Herald, which is better known for its investigative reporting, recently ran an interview with Christophe Navarre, chief executive of the French wine and spirits maker Moët Hennessy.
The article appeared after the company, with the help of Ruder Finn, an American public relations firm, agreed to pay the airfare, lodging and food costs for nine journalists, including one from the 21st Century paper, to visit Moët Hennessy’s chateau in western China. Of the media organisations that rode along, only the international news agency Reuters paid its own travel and other costs, Ruder Finn said.
Moët Hennessy and Ruder Finn, however, insist they did not make any other payments to entice coverage.
Media specialists say nowhere are such quid pro quos as common and as aggressively pursued as in China — to the frustration of Chinese business executives.
“If one of my companies came up with a cure for cancer, I still couldn’t get any journalists to come to the press conference without promising them a huge envelope filled with cash,” said one Shanghai-based private equity investor, insisting that he not to be named because he feared journalists would boycott covering his companies altogether.
Such payments also violate Chinese law. China’s propaganda authorities prohibit news outlets and journalists from accepting payments to cover news conferences or to publish news. Accepting secret payments can also be prosecuted under the nation’s laws against bribery, and some cases have been. Convictions can result in prison sentences.
But so much money is sloshing around, analysts say, that enforcement is rare in China. Instead, the government occasionally issues general warnings, which go widely ignored.
Newspaper and magazine advertising departments continue to openly discuss their rates — even when a researcher making inquiries identifies herself as working for The New York Times.
“If your company’s boss wants to be shown twice, in an audience seat, for a total of five seconds, the average price is $5,000 on some popular news programs,” said Wang Limin, an account manager at Yashi Media, a Beijing agency that helps companies obtain coverage in print and broadcast media.
“If your boss wants to comment on something brief and we shoot him in a news programme for 15 seconds, it would be $9,000. And if your boss wants an exclusive interview for 10 minutes, the rate is much higher.”
Gu Huini and Xu Yan contributed research
© 2012 The New York Times News Service