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BuzzFeed Among the Brands

On the social web, all roads lead to brands, so let’s start with a story of a #brand. Five years ago, Domino’s acknowledged what most of us already knew: they made shit pizza. So the company launched an advertising campaign in which it offered a mea culpa and promised better recipes and better service. Was the revamped pizza any tastier? Probably not, but it didn’t much matter. Customers enjoyed seeing a company humble itself, and the gesture earned the pizza company a lot of goodwill and free press.

Not long ago, BuzzFeed took a similar tack, reinventing itself for the third or fourth time and admitting, if not to past mistakes, then at least to something like growing pains. BuzzFeed was “pivoting,” according to industry jargon, from a tech company to a media company. The site deleted thousands of posts, many of them of low quality or containing possible plagiarism, and posted an ethics guide. BuzzFeed News became its own vertical, distinguishing its often good reporting from the rest of site without fully walling it off. The company recruited talented writers and editors, adding them to a formidable staff.

But the past week has brought us another imbroglio showing that BuzzFeed’s transformation has been far from easy. It also casts doubt on the company’s newly pledged allegiance to what it calls “neutral journalism.” Maybe BuzzFeed is indeed a media company. Or maybe its love of brands, which fund so much of its content, has sugar-coated the whole venture.

The story goes like this: BuzzFeed beauty editor Arabelle Sicardi wrote a post for the Life vertical criticizing a condescending advertising campaign by Dove, which happens to be a BuzzFeed sponsor. The post was later deleted, and editor in chief Ben Smith offered up a dubious reason: BuzzFeed, he explained, wanted to have less opinion on the site. That seemed like nonsense. After all, BuzzFeed is overrun with opinion, especially of the “19 Incredible Things You Didn’t Know About Dunkin’ Donuts” sort—i.e. cheery, corporate-friendly, unthreatening. Not only that, but deleting the post went against the site’s own ethics guide, which states, “Editorial posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to do so.”

Gawker has led in reporting on the issue, and the irascible blog soon discovered that BuzzFeed had also deleted a post criticizing Monopoly, the board game, after signing an advertising deal with Hasbro. Soon after Gawker’s report appeared, Smith decided to reinstate both the Dove and Monopoly posts. Sicardi resigned.

It’s troubling that BuzzFeed apparently caved to advertiser pressure, but even more galling is the dissembling act Smith and company put on as they tried to minimize the damage.

It could be that Smith isn’t lying when he says he “didn’t know Dove was an advertiser” until he saw the Gawker piece. But it’s a step too far when he pretends that BuzzFeed doesn’t bow at the altar of the brands.

Of course Smith and his fellow post-deleters weren’t fretting over a surfeit of opinion or “hot takes”—the pejorative epithet du jour for quick, opinion-driven, newsy pieces that one doesn’t like. As Gawker’s Tom Scocca asked incredulously, “Who is Ben Smith kidding?” (Score one for Gawker this time around: its don’t-give-a-fuck attitude is refreshing and necessary.)

The real bugbear for BuzzFeed isn’t opinion, but opinion of a particular kind—namely, criticism. Otherwise, why didn’t BuzzFeed also yank Arabelle Sicardi’s post of Feb. 17, in which she called a Pizza Hut promotional campaign “the best thing ever”? Or her post praising the Japanese retailer Muji?

Much of BuzzFeed seems to be written in this candy-sweet style, which resembles the tenor of product advertisements: always smiling, never frowning. The site is a bacchanalia of consumerism, with posts from what it calls “Brand Publishers” mixing comfortably with staff work. Anything that strays onto the cloudy side of sunny gets pulled back into BuzzFeed’s hyper-chipper blanditude. Some members of the commentariat are applauding Smith’s decision to reinstate the post and his “transparency” throughout the process. But skirting the real issues isn’t transparency. And chipper isn’t neutral; it’s a deliberate posture.

In February, I noted that BuzzFeed and its many defenders seem struck by an odd defensiveness, an eagerness to be seen as more mature, as having grown beyond listicles and other viral nonsense. And in many respects, BuzzFeed has achieved that. It’s worth close to a billion dollars and soaked with VC cash. As the unbundling of cable TV foments a kind of content distribution arms race, BuzzFeed is poised to be among the winners. At this very moment, members of its video team are in Cannes, France, selling its videos to foreign media companies from around the world.

But like the Huffington Post a few years ago, BuzzFeed is trapped in its self-made image. No matter how proudly it peddles its new Norwegian glacier melt, many people still see it as a purveyor of bilge water—and those people are partly right. Just as HuffPo still aggressively aggregates while also churning out good reporting, much of the old BuzzFeed lives on.

While longer, ostensibly better work does rack up a lot of shares (one of BuzzFeed’s principal goals in trying to win what it calls the “social web”), brands would much rather sponsor listicles and cute animal videos than investigatory journalism. In a time when very few people read hard news, BuzzFeed is committed, for better or worse, to its clickbait, which has been key in fueling its growth.

It’s the familiar mullet strategy: sophisticated work in the front; quizzes, listicles, aggregation, and other brand-pleasing, attention-grabbing crap in the back.

This is the case, though, with every new media company. They all claim that they’re going to be trying “new forms,” experimenting, innovating. They all claim that they’re going to resist doing “hot takes.” And sure they might start a podcast, or publish a story with GIFs or as a video game, but in the end, most of them fall back on the same methods: publishing a range of content and chasing traffic in order to try to surmount a broken business model. It has ever been thus, and will continue to be as long as advertisers subsidize our work. We work under the tyranny of pageviews and commoditized attention.

In a memo last Friday, Ben Smith told his staff, “I . . . see it as my job to shield you from that pressure”—that is, the pressure of advertisers. But for all of his brand’s cultural cachet, it seems he still hasn’t figured out how to do just that.