PhRMA and the Political Economy of Sponsored Content

Two speculations and an announcement following up on previous posts on Talking Points Memo and sponsored content. First, the reason why TPM and some other policy/politics sites are moving towards sponsored content looks to me to have a lot to do with the advertising market. Politics junkies are not specifically attractive subjects for advertising, as one can tell from the ads in most policy focused print journals (which tend towards mobile phones with big friendly buttons for elderly people etc). I would guess that policy focused websites have relatively low clickthrough rates for standard ads, and in any event standard ads are a game where Google dominates (and is able to squeeze websites). Hence, sponsored content is an obvious way of monetizing readers – it allows people trying to sell a policy message to persuade policy focused readers more easily, using formats which strongly resemble the ways that these readers are used to consuming journalistic information rather than advertising.

Second, I suspect that editors of policy websites do not think of sponsored content as standard advertising, since it isn’t, no matter how they justify this to the public and themselves. Instead, they implicitly distinguish between ‘respectable’ organizations, which they could plausibly take sponsored content from without damaging their reputation and self-conception too much, and ‘unrespectable’ organizations which they don’t want anything to do with. Big Beltway lobby groups, no matter how evil, fit into the first category. Religious cults and governments fit into the second. I would be prepared to bet a good deal of money that Josh Marshall would not have treated a proposal from the Church of Scientology for a ‘sponsored channel’ on psychological science as advertising content which you accept because if you start refusing you are entering into an editorial role etc etc etc. He’d have refused it, because it would have damaged TPM’s credibility. NB too that sponsored content from the Church of Scientology in a political magazine is not a crazy hypothetical.

The point isn’t that TPM, or other media groups are unusually hypocritical here or uniquely susceptible to getting into bed with problematic organizations. We live in a fallen world, where it’s hard to remain pure, and where many people and organizations arguably behave worse. I would bet significant amounts of money that Marshall wouldn’t accept a deal with the Chinese government to run sponsored content in an ‘East Asian Politics Channel.’ I would be completely certain that he would absolutely refuse a deal where the Chinese government had some editorial control over this hypothetical channel’s contents. It turns out that many universities aren’t quite so fussy.

Rather, it’s that the categories of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ that journalists (or, for that matter, academics and university administrators) work with, are sociological, rather than stemming from deep principle. They’re open to question and criticism. PhRMA – the organization that Talking Points Memo is working together with is a ‘respectable’ player in Washington DC politics. It’s a big policy actor, with deep pockets and a lot of influence. It is also in my opinion (and the opinion of most scholars working on access to knowledge issues), an organization that has done a lot to corrupt political debate in the US and elsewhere, pushing for policies that have led to widespread misery and indeed (e.g. in the case of AIDS drugs in South Africa), deaths. Hence the announcement. Over the next while, I’ll be looking to publish pieces from a variety of sources talking about the political activities of PhRMA and the pharmaceutical industry in general. One of the reason why PhRMA gets away with so much is because a lot of people don’t know what it has been responsible for. In an ideal world, PhRMA would be treated, like the Church of Scientology, as a pariah. Over the next few weeks, I hope we’ll be able to make the case for why.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.