This Is Not an Ad

Folha is accused of not distinguishing sponsored content from the editorial product

João Carlos Cauduro, the architect and designer responsible for the visual programming of the São Paulo subway and the totems on Avenida Paulista, among many other projects, died last week. Symbols and equipment that are in the emotional imagination of the city, but that go unnoticed because they were designed to work discreetly and efficiently, not to attract attention.

Concept of an architecture that interferes with and organizes the environment, the total design of Cauduro and Ludovico Martino, his partner, who died in 2011, remains as a geological layer of success that is piled up among many others, most of them mediocre, in the largest city in Latin America. A sparse hint of what it once was or could have been. São Paulo is a heap of these attempts, few in search of solutions.

The capital demands a lot of rumination. Jaime Lerner used to spend the morning thinking only about Curitiba, he only got things done in the afternoon. São Paulo, however, conditions its mayors to the short term, all wanting to leave their marks but with their sights set on the next election. Electoral cannon lifts rulers to greater flights, say analysts. The idea, then, is to draw the spotlight to you. The concept of Total design sounds like something Danish in this setting.

The shift mayor, Ricardo Nunes (MDB), is no exception to the rule, one can notice it just by the amount of propaganda of his administration is currently on the air. Part of it is published in Folha in the form of sponsored content or "branded content", as they say in the media market. A team from the commercial department, with no ties to the newsroom, produces articles, videos, and even events ordered by clients.

Publishing material funded by third parties is one of the solutions found by the press in the face of the crisis imposed by the impact of the internet on its business model. Broadly speaking, there are two types: content that has the support of sponsors, but without editorial implication, meaning, it is up to the Editorial Board to decide what it is and how it is published (Seminars and some Environmental coverage are examples of it in Folha); content dictated by sponsors, in which the Newsroom does not participate (identified as Estúdio Folha in the newspaper).

For the sake of transparency, it is necessary to clearly distinguish sponsored content from editorial ones. Different visual designs and banners are common tools to signal the nature of the published product. This has been the case for years at Folha and other newspapers, in Brazil and around the world.

A little over a month ago, however, a reader accessed a page funded by the city hall believing he was reading a regular news article. Upon realizing that it was propaganda, he contacted the ombudsman. In an internal critique, I alerted the editorial staff that there was no clear indication that it was a sponsored product.

The issue came up again on Wednesday (23). The Intercept published that Estúdio Folha received R$2.3 million from the advertising agency hired by the municipal administration. The text makes inferences but does not present anything concrete beyond, of course, the lack of a more explicit signal of non-editorial content.

It is evident that the problem lies in the fact that the client is called City Hall of São Paulo. For many readers, Folha should refuse to host, even in the form of an advertisement, a promotional piece for the candidate mayor. Great, but then it would be necessary, for isonomy and for journalistic balance, to refuse commercials from public entities in general, governments, and state-owned companies. Double great, but does any national press have enough subscribers to sustain such a rash? Newspapers are not turning down resources, on the contrary. This newspaper, in the midst of a pandemic, published an advertisement by doctors defending an alternative treatment for Covid. A scandal, from which it did not consider retreating.

When asked, the Newsroom Department reiterated the strict separation between the commercial department and the Newsroom. "Estúdio Folha produces publicity material that, like all publicity material published by Folha, is edited in order to stand out from the news content clearly. Journalistic coverage of municipal management, like that of all government instances in the country, follows the precepts of the Writing Manual. It has been critical, independent, and non-partisan and will continue to be so."

Regarding the lack of a clearer marker for sponsored content, the newspaper responded: "The assessment of the presentation of advertising material, which includes that produced by Estúdio Folha, is daily and done on a case-by-case basis. Adjustments are often requested by the editorial staff to make the differentiation in relation to journalistic material clear."

Effect or not of the questions, the pages of the city hall finally received markers on Friday (25). Kind of late.

The newspaper should model itself on Cauduro. Being efficient is better than attracting attention.


The ombudsman takes a vacation. The column returns on October 1st.

Jose Henrique Mariante

An engineer and journalist, he was a reporter, correspondent, editor, and secretary at Folha, where he has worked since 1991. He is the ombudsman