Scholarly Journals Versus Advertorials: The New Health Care Battlefront
The health care information patients read may have more to do with search engines than quality.
Like an "Aunt Minnie" diagnosis in radiology, everyone in science and medicine knows a scholarly journal when they see one, particularly journals in our own area of research or clinical practice. Although the scientific and medical communities are used to seeking out and regularly reading peer-reviewed high-quality content found in traditional medical journals, our patients and their families may have less experience with this type of information. Or, if they do find and read journal articles, they may not have enough scientific (and especially statistical) literacy to understand the content and make an independent judgment of its quality.
So what's a person to do when faced with a health concern and armed with the power of the Internet? They may turn to another form of publication that is written in more straightforward language, unencumbered by scientific jargon and loads of numerical data. Something that's one or two pages in length, with a few simple but compelling graphics, namely an advertorial.
Advertorials are advertising disguised as editorials (or even news articles or other pieces of bona fide journalism). You've almost certainly come across these pseudo-scholarly writings, sometimes clearly labelled as advertisement in fine print on a thin banner stretching across the top or bottom of a magazine page. Advertorials are also known as native advertising. Clever, isn't it, because most of us have no idea what native advertising means, at least not the "native" part when stuck in front of the "advertising" part. Meanwhile, the word "advertorial" is a more obvious amalgam of two words. But the bottom line is that this type of content is an ad, no matter what it's called.
Sometimes advertorials are labelled as sponsored content, meaning someone has paid for its presence. Like product placement in a movie, they're there to serve a deliberate purpose, usually to sell you something, but are hidden among legitimate news articles, like a wolf in sheep's clothing, the true purpose of which may not be immediately obvious to an unsuspecting reader.
Advertorials are written with trust-inspiring authority by modern marketing Svengalis. Who can resist the lure of advertorials? Their siren song tells you what you want to hear and in ways that resonate with your limbic system, the primitive brain. Why appeal to the cerebral cortex with well-reasoned rational analysis when you can go for the gut? A sober, well-reasoned journal article heavy on details of study design and results analysis but as dry as kindling (except to those passionate about the subject matter) may be no match for the slick and compelling mindworms (a non-musical equivalent of the so-called catchy-tune earworm) of advertising copy.
It's bad enough when an advertorial appears in print in health and fitness magazines, alongside all sorts of dietary supplements claiming amazing effects on every aspect of your physical and mental well-being and pricey gizmos guaranteed to increase the size of your biceps or what have you. However, the internet compounds the situation by allowing such deceptive content to be more effectively camouflaged. Where in the past, advertorials in print were labeled as such. The Internet has blurred the lines between advertising and editorial content with poorly enforced rules on labeling and less centralized content sources.
There's a sucker born every minute.– attributed to P.T. Barnum rival David Hannum
Therefore, detecting sponsored content concealed amid high-quality trustworthy health care writing has become an increasingly critical skill. But it is too much to ask that people without a medical or scientific background be so discerning? Can we expect everyone to be equally skilled at playing "Where's Waldo?" with medical information? The answer is no, and shrewd advertisers know it. Advertorials are aggressively persuasive without overtly appearing to be so. In other words, advertisers know what makes us tick.
How can we battle against such a clever adversary? For now, we have only the shield of a skeptical filter emblazoned with our battle cry of "caveat emptor" to fight against the advertorial chimera, while we anticipate the arrival of a champion of scholarly justice to ride in on a shiny white steed to slay the hideous beast. Think I am being overly dramatic? OK, well maybe just a wee bit. But the current reality is that those of us in the medical and scientific communities must demonstrate leadership in connecting people with the same high-quality vetted content that we read in our professional journals.
This is an issue well recognized by the scholarly community. JACR and its publisher Elsevier sponsored a recent effort to find innovative ways to bring scholarly information to patients.
Read what others have to say about opening journal access to patients:
An advocacy group dedicated to open access for all