In Soviet times, a journalist must first of all be guided by the principle of the party. That is, when the reporter was thinking about what should be mentioned and what should not be mentioned in the material, he had to take into account the interests of the party, not the society. And what has changed today? Journalists of many, especially popular “among the people” media, continue to focus on the same “Soviet” rule. That is the most dangerous during elections when the comprehensive, verified and objective information about the candidates is crucial for the society. After all, the quality of public choice depends on the quality of information in favor of one or another contender for the presidency.
In which Ukrainian media there is the biggest number of advertorial?
Information about who makes the biggest number of advertorial is open. Numerous Ukrainian public organizations carefully analyze journalistic content. And the main conclusion is: the more popular the media is, the more critically it must be treated. Advertorial migrates exactly where there are more readers / viewers.
For example, the Institute of Mass Media compiled a rating of the main customers of advertorial on popular online resources. In March of this year, the leaders were the Opposition Platform “For Life” (22%), Yuriy Boyko (16%), Yulia Tymoshenko (14%), Volodymyr Zelensky and Anatoliy Hrytsenko (9%). Among the sites “distinguished” in this regard, there are just the top-rated Obozrevatel and 112.ua. In addition to them, the known to Ukrainians NewsOne, Znaj.ua, RBC-Ukraine, Gordon, UNIAN and Segodnya. Interestingly, neither the pro-Ukrainian nor pro-Russian position of the publication affect the advertorial policy of the publication. Both publish materials with signs of the order.
The same situation with TV channels. According to a study carried out by a number of Ukrainian public organizations – the Commission on Journalist Ethics, the Platform for Human Rights, the Ukrainian Institute of Media and Communication, StopFake – almost all of them “showed their sympathies and antipathies for the candidates”. The situation on television is more tricky because according to a survey, conducted by the InMind on the Internews order, it is television that is the most popular media in Ukraine (77% of Ukrainians use it to get news, and the Ukrainians trust this media the most (61% in 2018).
Against the background of rating Internet resources and TV channels, Ukrainian district newspapers are just surprising. According to the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy survey which monitored local newspapers in eight regions of Ukraine, from all Ukrainian media, they have little interest in the election race, which indicates “participants in the election race relied on popular media channels – television, authoritative All-Ukrainian print publications and sites”. In local newspapers, however, there is another “misfortune” – they are too loyal to the authorities, the so-called “press-release” prevails: the papers reprint any statements or materials, provided by the press services of state bodies, or local governments.
How do candidates hide manipulations and campaigning?
The so-called advertorial is an insidious phenomenon since the main thing in these texts is to disguise the frank advertising message under ordinary journalistic material. For this, PR people use all their imagination.
However, a thoughtful reader or viewer can outwit them. An important question: who benefits from this text about a politician or candidate? Society or the candidate himself?
Usually, the largest number of pre-election advertorial contains certain statements or proposals from candidates. In this case, we ask ourselves how new these statements are and do they contain important information for the public? And is a politician qualified in what he says? Because usually, the typical advertorial is a repetition of “common truths”, the politician simply uses “binding” to those topics that are more widely discussed in society. Consequently, the candidates comment on everything.
Let’s examine two examples. First: Ulana Suprun states that you can “wet Mantoux test”. This information is important for the whole society, previously it was thought that this should not be done, and also because the competent source makes the statement. However, if Oleksandr Vilkul proposes to open a library in the Verkhovna Rada, then one should understand that there is already, firstly, the library, and, secondly, the candidate is not an expert in librarianship.
Also, politicians in advertorial texts like to talk about their active actions for the benefit of the whole society. Sometimes it is important to know. For example, the fact that Boyko together with Medvedchuk met with Medvedev in the Russian Federation. There is real news here, which is that during the war, the Ukrainian politicians meet with a Russian politician in Russia. But if we talk about the advertorial, then usually the news does not have such a text.
Take for example the text about Lyashko and a puppy.
It would seem that this is the usual text from the “gossip column” section, nevertheless, it was printed under the heading “Political news”. This is the first “bell”.
Next, we look at the material itself and ask ourselves, who are they talking about more: about Lyashko or about a puppy?
There are four paragraphs of the text about Lyashko, where we are told about how the politician loves dogs, how many dogs he has and his attitude towards them. There is one paragraph about the dog and one screenshot from Facebook. So, Lyashko wins. This is the second “bell”.
And the last ‒ this is the background to the text, where journalists should remind the backdrop of events or give statistics. Therefore, if the text is really about the dog, then there should be something about the situation with stray animals in the background, statistics, for example. However, we see something completely different in the text:
The links here are only to texts about Lyashko.
Naturally, the conclusion: this is the material with signs of the order; the interests of a certain politician are promoted in it. The text is written to consolidate in the minds of readers a positive image of Lyashko, who helps the helpless, takes care of them. In addition, the text focuses not on the topic of stray animals, but on the actions of a particular person.
So, in order to distinguish journalistic text from advertorial, you need to ask yourself what is the news and to whom is this news more important: to me or a politician?
But there are also difficult cases. That is why we will consider the key manipulative techniques that presidential candidates use, according to surveys, among the top three are: Volodymyr Zelensky, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.
Zelensky: challenge, “winding up” of the informational reasons and the use of comedy resource
The case of Zelensky is, perhaps, the most interesting, because it is with this person that many controversial texts are located that are on the border between journalism and election campaigning. In addition, behind the politician’s back, there is a powerful media resource that demonstrates its frank political sympathies. At the same time, this is explained by the “policy” of the channel.
As for Zelensky, we distinguish three main groups of manipulations:
- excessive attention, a kind of “winding up” of informational reasons;
- use of the “official” position of the comic;
- stamps: charity and attempts to discredit the candidate.
“Winding up” began with excessive attention, when there were a lot of different speculations around the topic of Zelensky’s possible participation in the elections. For example, the website TSN a week before the New Year’s Eve, when the comedian announced his intention to run, mentioned for times that Zelensky “is thinking” about it. It was a kind of “warm up”. This technique is used on TSN even today. For example, journalists do not just give the news that Zelensky filed documents to the CEC. At first, they announce it, then they make news about it, and then they recall that the CEC workers took autographs from him. The situation is similar to the scandal around the Russian business of the candidate. After the investigation of the “Scheme” program on TSN, seven publications appeared on this topic. First, the denial, and then six texts in which Zelensky himself and his lawyer justified themselves and tried in one way or another to downplay the facts, mentioned in the investigation.
The interesting thing about this technique is that the text is supposedly informative: after all, the candidates, who have registered by the CEC, are remembered in the news. It is important to know. It is also important to allow the politician to respond to criticism – even if he did not do it immediately during the “Schemes” investigation. Here the thing is in the number of mentions. If a candidate constantly appears in news releases, then the audience is under the impression that he has serious intentions, that he has something to say, etc. And to prove that some particular material from this list is advertorial is practically impossible. After all, there is an informational reason. But also violations of journalistic standards as well – because in such situations you just need to pay attention to how many times we are told the same thing.
“Official” position of the comic. Much has been said about how to treat the series The Servant of the People and the announcements to it. However, it is just the use of the brand in campaigning. After all, talking about achieving a candidate during a campaign is normal. Another thing when it is recognized as advertising. Then this is a violation. Then we ask ourselves why the premiere of the third film series is scheduled for March 27 ‒ five days before the election? The answer of the deputy chairman of the CEC, Yevhen Radchenko, quoted by Interfax, is indicative as well: it is possible to evaluate whether the series is agitation only after the release. Consequently, the requirements of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine to pay for the airtime from the election fund of the candidate, where he will be in the frame, will not be met. Just like the series would not be designated as “political advertising”.
From the point of view of agitation and corresponding labeling of this agitation, Zelensky’s New Year’s address to Ukrainians is also doubtful. In fact, this is the advertorial, and the excuses of “1+1” about why, they say, it is possible for the President, but not for us, cannot be taken seriously. The format of the New Year’s congratulations of the President is probably outdated. But to use it to promote your candidate means to violate the journalistic standard of “editorial independence”, according to which the media should not give an advantage to any candidate/politician/party. The demonstration of the documentary Reagan on “1+1” a day before the elections, where the US President will be voiced by Zelensky is a violation of the same standard.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with the comedian, going for the presidency. The bad thing is that the person, who is promoted as a supposedly “new face” in Ukrainian politics uses the same manipulative advertorial tricks like the “old faces”, not daring to name political advertising exactly as it should be called.
Stamps. According to Zelensky, well-known themes of charity have been used for a long time. It is noted that “Kvartal 95” gives free concerts for soldiers of the ATO and low-income segments of the population. Zelensky also conducts charity tours along the shooting area of The Servant of the People film. Another stamp is attacks on candidates. Of course, sometimes the attacks are real. This is sad. But it’s also sad when it’s just a “loud” statements. For example, only in January 2019 on TSN, it was reported twice that hackers “knocked down” Zelensky’s website, that they want to discredit the candidate through fake protest actions.
Only Zelensky’s Challenges can be considered new here, which he announces or to which he joins in Instagram. On TSN, of course, information about this is actively reprinted. However, this is the same advertorial, for example as for the “Spade Challenge”. When we ask ourselves why this flashmob was launched: in order to set an example for the country about how to overcome difficulties, or for PR, the answer is obvious. If we consider that the video lasted only 30 seconds, and the candidate during this time waved the spade only a few times.
Poroshenko: an ordinary “press-release”
Interestingly, the incumbent president does not appear in the ratings of advertorial customers. Although, there are enough custom materials about him. And here is the same thing as with Zelensky. If the comedian uses his comedic resource “to the fullest”, then Poroshenko has an even greater advantage. After all, it is impossible to imagine a news release on TV or tapes on all-Ukrainian websites without mentioning him. Consequently, it is possible to “replay” journalists ‒ and under the guise of news about the activities of the president to give advertorial. Therefore, in order to understand where the news, and where the materials with signs of the order are, we set ourselves a simple question. Where was this text read: on the president’s Twitter or in the news block?
Consider the most illustrative examples from newspaper The Segodnya, which is very loyally covering the activities of Poroshenko (compare: in January-February 2019 there were 119 texts about Poroshenko, 3 about Tymoshenko, and 6 about Zelensky).
Congratulations, patriotic statements and anti-Kremlin rhetoric are used to advance the president.
Various greetings – a rudiment of the “Soviet-era” when such texts, signed by the authorities, were printed on the front pages of newspapers and were considered highly important. In fact, most of these texts are advertorial. Here, for example, this text on the site Segodnya: “Poroshenko congratulated aviation engineers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. If this was the publication of the “Aviation Engineers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces”, then such a publication could also be referred to the “journalistic text” section. But in the all-Ukrainian mass publication, it is just an attempt to stress once again that the president cares about the Army. Such a text is primarily good for a future presidential candidate.
It is more difficult with patriotic statements and anti-Kremlin rhetoric. For example, The Segodnya newspaper reports that the president’s wife stated that “Crimea is Ukraine”. So, it is very important to talk about it. But to whom she said it and where? It turns out, she said about it in Kyiv at the forum “The occupied Crimea 5 years of resistance”. Also, the president constantly talks about the various machinations of Russia and the Kremlin. So, you need to know about the plans of the enemy. But usually, they write about things, already known. For example, “Instead of a war – destabilization: Poroshenko spoke about changing the plans of the Kremlin”, “The sentence for Like on Facebook”: Poroshenko “trolled” Russia” Poroshenko named Ukraine’s two main enemies (Russia and poverty – E.D.)”, “Poroshenko told about the role of the Ukrainian language in resisting the aggression of Russia” and others.
Therefore, due to the peculiarities of the “editorial policy” before the elections, or simply because of laziness, journalists actively reprint almost all the statements of the president, not weighing what is really important for readers and what is the usual advertorial.
Tymoshenko: can’t but quote the statements
Yuliya Tymoshenko has long been known for her loud and radical statements. Her PR specialists and the candidate herself can attractively “wrap” their messages in such a way that the journalists would have nothing else to do: just make a beautiful quote in the headline. Pay attention to the site RBC-Ukraine, actively promoting the policy. On average, 3-5 texts about Tymoshenko appear here every day. She declares provocations of the “black headquarters” of Poroshenko, “corruption deals” of law enforcement officers and calls on Poroshenko to withdraw his candidacy from the elections. At first glance, such statements look like an alternative position of the oppositionist. After all, political persecution and corruption are important topics for the media.
However, in the advertorial, such applications are filed without an important background. Namely, the statement of Tymoshenko about the impeachment of Poroshenko. In the journalistic text about the removal of the president from power, it is worth remembering that Poroshenko is not the only one whom the candidate threatened with impeachment. Moreover, the impeachment procedure takes a long time, and the statement was made six weeks before the election.
Tymoshenko’s team is not squeamish about congratulations: “The spring will surely win: Yuliya Tymoshenko congratulated the Ukrainian women on March 8”. The candidate also signs the obligations before the Ukrainians, she meets with foreign politicians (but all this is published on the news site, and not on the candidate’s election campaign site, as it should be). Also, several times we were told that they were shooting a film about Tymoshenko (perhaps this is an attempt to somehow beat Zelensky).
* * *
Unfortunately, new candidates do not change the usual tactics of campaigning. Even after Euromaidan, the advertorial studies showed that the situation with materials with signs of the order did not bettered, but worsened. There are more such texts. So, despite the statements of politicians about the update, the course on Europe, and democratic values, “Soviet” traditions continue to harm the Ukrainian media.
Interestingly, according to the InMind research commissioned by Internews, 65% of Ukrainian people know that the media publish custom materials. And half of them believe that they can distinguish such texts. If so, why do the candidates in the election campaign continue to rely on advertorial?
Firstly, this is facilitated by the spread of the Internet and the use of the world wide web so that more and more Ukrainians get news. The more you are remembered, the higher you are in Google queries. In this case, it is desirable that there are more positive mentions than negative ones. And then the reader, looking for something on the net, will be the first to see exactly the “good” news. As a rule, they read it. Here you can, by the way, make a small experiment. Search Google for candidate ratings. As a rule, with the help of SEO-optimization, the ratings that are most preferred for the candidate are displayed in the top. Pay, for example, attention to the results of the search query “rating of Vilkul”. The first is the “news” that it is growing.
Secondly, the advertorial is beneficial to those, who cannot win honestly. The rules of the game in the Ukrainian elections are constantly violated; the legislation, in particular on advertising, is often ignored. In addition, advertorial as a product of the “Soviet-era” is an imitation of journalism. The “positive” material was printed about you, you can boast that you will win the election. Both journalists and politicians end up losing at the same time, they are less likely to trust because of custom-made materials that is even good. After all, an angry, disappointed and disoriented audience is easier to manipulate.
As we see, Ukrainian politicians continue to undermine the culture of high-quality political communication and “blur” the boundaries between journalism, pop culture and public relations (and sometimes even outright propaganda). Therefore, unfortunately, our country successfully fits into the global trends of falling democratic standards and the level of freedom. At least, as long as the advertorial will remain the leading way to struggle for high political positions.
Text by Nataliya Steblyna, the expert of the Institute for Democracy named after Petro Orlyk