News / 10.10.2013

Finnish Council for Mass Media to update guidelines on disguised advertising

By Linus Atarah

The era of the internet and proliferating social media has transformed the traditional media and it is increasingly becoming difficult for media watchdogs to identify or police disguised advertisement on all media platforms.

An increased number of media consumers are frequently turning to media sites such as blogs and social media who are beyond the realm of the ethical standards set by the media watchdog, the Council for Mass Media in Finland (JSN).

Given this new situation JSN is exploring ways to bring the existing journalists’ ethical guidelines to align with the changed media environment. Late last month, JSN convened a well-attended seminar on the issue of disguised advertisements, bringing together journalists and publishers across a broad spectrum of media organisations in Finland.

 The purpose of the seminar, according to the organisers, was to seek opinions and input from a cross-section of the media field concerning a set of new guidelines. The last statements of JSN on disguised advertisement date back to 2005 and need to be changed, the organisers said.  

The need for changes was underlined by one of the participants, who said in an interview during the seminar that in the internet world, it is difficult to make a distinction between advertisements, sponsored material or journalistic material. He went on to ask if the old rules were still relevant or should they be abandoned altogether and adopt an ultra-liberal path of having no guidelines at all.

However, none of the 80 participants present at the seminar was in favour of abandoning the existing ethical principle of a strict separation of journalistic material from advertisements. But he said any new guidelines should pay particular attention to news websites, ensuring that they provide a clear distinction between commercial and journalistic material to their visitors. Besides, anyone who is sponsored on a trip to write a story should also make full disclosure, he said.

However, it is not only websites which flout journalistic principles. Radio stations, newspapers and commercial magazines have all had condemnatory rulings from JSN over the past few years concerning inadequate distinction between advertisement and journalistic material. Commercial magazines have tried to argue that there can never be a fast and hard separation between advertisement and journalistic material; creativity is needed in lifestyle journalism in order to survive in an atmosphere of heightened global media competition over dwindling advertising revenue.

JSN was forced to issue a statement on disguised advertising in 1988 when the issue became widespread in the electronic and print media. From 1994 to 2005 JSN has handled 44 complaints on disguised advertising of which 27 received condemnatory rulings. However, it is widely acknowledged that disguised advertising is not yet a major problem but would probably become so in the not-too-distant future.


Another one of the participants in the seminar voiced concerns over ethical guidelines from the perspective of commercial broadcasters. The complaint was that commercial broadcasters were under too many regulating bodies unlike their cousins, the print media. These bodies of regulators and their varying rules, according to the sepaker, leave consumers perplexed so they are often unsure of which body to turn to with complaints. Besides, while commercial broadcasters are obliged to adhere to all media regulations, broadcasting regulations do not apply to all media.

Commercial broadcasters, are being regulated by the Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority, Finnish Consumer and Competition Authority, the laws on broadcasting, the Council of ethics in Advertising and JSN, which oversees the journalistic content of broadcasters.

Commercial television broadcasters have complained that the lack of clarity in existing regulations makes it easy for other players to encroach their field but allowed to play with a different set of rules.


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