Like its competitors in Beltway journalism, Politico makes pricey investments in newsgathering. All those editors and reporters and trips to shadow politicians cost millions upon millions of dollars. Also, like its competitors, Politico has gotten resourceful in seeking the money to support all that activity. Native ads — those sneaky rascals that promote stuff while resembling genuine, fully vetted editorial work — are part of the formula.

One of those ads just became famous, per coverage in the Guardian about the work that Cambridge Analytica, a firm that represents clients seeking to “change audience behaviour,” did for the Trump presidential campaign in 2016. The firm zoomed into the news last week, when it emerged that it had acquired data from 50 million-plus Facebook users.

In explaining how Cambridge Analytica assisted the Trump campaign, the Guardian interviewed former firm employee Brittany Kaiser. The story included these three paragraphs:

One of the most effective ads, according to Kaiser, was a piece of native advertising , which was also profiled in the presentation. The interactive graphic, which looked like a piece of journalism and purported to list “10 inconvenient truths about the Clinton Foundation”, appeared for several weeks to people from a list of key swing states when they visited the site. It was produced by the in-house Politico team that creates sponsored content.
The Cambridge Analytica presentation dedicates an entire slide to the ad, which is described as having achieved “an average engagement time of four minutes”. Kaiser described the ad as “the most successful thing we pushed out”.
Politico said editorial journalists were not involved in the campaign, and similar ads were purchased by the Bernie Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

Here’s a look at how the ad presents itself on the Politico site:

To any experienced reader of Politico, that look raises eyebrows. First off, Politico stories commonly have newsy headlines and distinctive digital folderol:

And in case the reader was inclined to view the piece as original Politico journalism, there’s a warning right at the top of the presentation signaling that it’s “SPONSOR-GENERATED CONTENT,” as well as a “paid advertisement” by “Donald J. Trump for President.” Those banners comply with industry best practices requiring that publishers refrain from hoodwinking their readers into disguising ads as journalism. “POLITICO is proud of the award winning work our Focus team produces on behalf of our many clients across a wide spectrum of industries. We’re proud that clients recognize the effectiveness of their ad placements,” notes Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring in a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Craig Minassian, a spokesman for the Clinton Foundation, has a less complimentary view:

In this contentious context, definitions matter.

“Creating,” says Politico’s Dayspring, doesn’t describe how the company handles these hot-potato ads. “As it relates specifically to the category of political campaign advertising, POLITICO and it’s Focus Brand Studio have a strict policy of not authoring or creating any content for political campaigns. For these specific types of ads, we provide creative services by developing pages with the assets we are given by the client and optimizing audience targeting, as we would any ad. In all cases, native advertising run on POLITICO is clearly labeled as ‘Sponsored Content’ with the advertiser clearly identified, as was the case in both the Trump and Sanders campaign pieces,” writes Dayspring, who says that the Trump and Bernie Sanders’s ads had “very different messaging objectives and strategies, which was their choice.” So, Politico’s in-house sponsored-content gurus assist with presentation and dissemination, not with formulation.

Even so, Minassian bridles at the presentation: “I’m guessing that the reason they went to a place like Politico is they wanted to make it look like a Politico story.”

The Clinton Foundation sent the Erik Wemple Blog a factual patdown of the Politico sponsored-content ad, including this pushback:

ASSERTION: “Several major Clinton foundation donations came from companies lobbying the Federal Government”
FACTS: The Wall Street Journal piece specifically said there was no evidence of any connection between these donations (from major companies that give significantly to charities) and any actions by Secretary Clinton. This was omitted from the Politico piece: “Corporate donations to politically connected charities aren’t illegal so long as they aren’t in exchange for favors. There is no evidence of that with the Clinton Foundation.”

Of course, the targets of political ads invariably have factual, conceptual and interpretive objections to them. “The content of the Trump ad was sourced from major news organizations, just like any political ad you would see on television,” notes Dayspring. “You can see the links to the articles when you click on the tiles at the bottom of the sponsored content.”

Over the 2016 campaign, the Clinton Foundation attempted to beat back attacks on its institutional integrity. That said, officials there never spotted this particular one. “We clearly weren’t the audience for it,” says Minassian, who adds: “Suffice it to say we were not aware of this ad at the time.” Careful placement and targeting, no doubt, explains the dynamic. As the Guardian reported, it “appeared for several weeks to people from a list of key swing states when they visited the site.” Chalk one up for the compartmentalization of the Internet.

It would be a mistake to view the Clinton Foundation as a clueless outlier in this sponsored-content moment. The existence of this slick and luscious ad was news to a few Politico journalists consulted by the Erik Wemple Blog.

Native advertising and sponsored content — the latter is an offshoot of the former, according to the experts — have been controversial over their long history in American media. They represent efforts by publishers to tiptoe along a line that gets redrawn with every money-making ad package. Wrote Jack Shafer about the tensions: A “publisher’s credibility suffers when it looks like it’s shilling for advertisers, and an advertiser’s reputation is at peril when readers begin to believe that the advertiser is somehow responsible for the site’s controversial editorial content.”

One principle, however, remains pretty well fixed: Sponsored content for political campaigns is far more controversial than it is for, say, Dell computers or Ford. That’s why some media outlets simply won’t go there.

The New York Times: “T Brand Studio, The New York Times Company’s in-house marketing agency, does not create branded content on behalf of political candidates, political parties, political campaigns and/or related entities such as PACs,” writes New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. The Washington Post’s brand studio does not “create content for candidates or PACs,” says a spokeswoman. The Atlantic has “not done native for partisan political campaigns and don’t plan to,” says a spokeswoman for Atlantic Media.

BuzzFeed, says a spokesman, has published “a small amount of sponsored content from political advocacy groups.”

Dayspring: “We feel this policy strikes the proper balance between being non-partisan, transparent about about who is behind these messages, and ensuring that we do not blur any lines or contribute to any campaign messaging, while still providing the advertising revenue that supports our world class journalism.”