“Story Killers”: a Toulouse startup offers to present advertorials as real information

In the jungle of misinformation, not all influencer companies resort to extreme methods. Some play on the vagueness that exists between advertising and information. Radio France’s investigation unit, with a consortium of 100 journalists from 30 international media coordinated by Forbidden Stories as part of the “Story Killers” project, was thus able to identify a Toulouse-based company which offers its clients the possibility of publishing advertising articles in information media, without these bearing the mention “sponsored”. This proposal is worth to him today to attract towards him media actors sometimes disreputable.

Very lucrative blogs

Created in 2018, this Toulouse company is called Getfluence. It has grown by taking advantage of the rise of the infomercial and sponsored articles industry in the age of online media. These formats, which mix promotional content and information, are an alternative to traditional advertisements, which are increasingly shunned by Internet users. Sniffing the good vein, from 2015, the founder of Getfluence Marc de Zordo, first invests in media sites and blogs which offer spaces for sponsored articles: “If I earn 300 euros per month with a blog, I can earn 100 times more with 100 equivalent blogs”he commented on his personal website.

After a year, her little business is doing so well that she has “a network of 200 media”of which “thirty particularly influential”. But Marc de Zordo sees bigger. At 31, he created a company that presented itself as an intermediary between advertisers and publishers. The Getfluence concept is taking shape. Its founder sums it up like this:Enabling companies to make the headlines of the biggest media in Europe”while also taking a 30% commission.

An intervention by Marc De Zordo on BFM Business, January 12, 2021. (YOUTUBE SCREEN CAPTURE)

“The vast majority of companies fail to make the front page of the influential press, explains Marc de Zordo. Journalists are over-solicited. You have to come at the right time to hope to get articles putting the spotlight on your box. That’s the whole point of the advertising format we offer: a sponsored article or editorial! You identify the media that suit you. You allocate a budget that guarantees you to make the front page. It’s simple!”

An option contrary to the regulations

Simple and very profitable. Marc de Zordo evokes a turnover which would double each year, to reach 10 million euros in 2022. And in fact, the teams are expanding. Getfluence now has around fifty employees spread over France, Italy and Spain. He plans to develop in Germany and the United Kingdom, and he attracts his customers thanks to his site, which offers an astonishing catalog allowing to connect 1,500 advertisers with more than 10,000 publishers. A catalog that is only presented to insiders. To consult it, you must register and have been validated as a customer by a member of the Getfluence sales team.

The advertiser, who wants to place his advertorial, can then carry out a search in a list of publisher sites, with prices ranging from a hundred euros to more than 40,000 if he wants to be published on the most influential or most frequented sites. But where the shoe pinches is that he is offered a rather strange option: the publication of an article without the mention “sponsored” appearing. An option that the catalog offers for more than 3,000 sites in France, and more than 17,000 worldwide.

The Getfluence site showing the possibility of using sponsored articles without mention.  (SCREENSHOT)

Getfluence therefore plays on the mixture of genres, at the risk of creating confusion contrary to the law. Several regulatory texts require that advertisements be distinguished from other content: “Any advertisement, in any form whatsoever (…) must be clearly identifiable as such”stipulates article 20 of the law of June 21, 2004. “Any advertising article with an editorial presentation must be preceded by the words ‘advertisement’ or ‘press release'”, clarifies article 10 of the law of 1 August 1986. The consumer code also prohibits any advertising content broadcast without being identified as such. He calls it “misleading business practice” punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 euros. About the global code of ethics for journalists, its article 13 recalls that it is necessary to avoid any confusion between the activity of journalist and that of publicist or propagandist. Because it is about the credibility of the media and the contract of trust that must be established between him and his readers.

Getfluence pleads error

Asked about the existence of this option which transforms an infomercial into pseudo editorial content, its director replied: “In France, the mention is obligatory, (…). But alas, the legislation is not common to all countries in the world. So each media, according to its offer and the country, defines its criteria, in particular in connection with the legislation. This option would therefore only be used for articles published in certain countries where the law is more permissive.

But why in these conditions propose it for French sites? Marc de Zordo does not answer precisely. “Whatever options the advertiser chooses, the medium ultimately decides.” An answer that may surprise, because among the media that appear on the platform are some renowned media such as the Guardian in Great Britain or Elle magazine. Asked about their presence, Marc de Zordo pleads good faith. “There may be input and criteria errors on some of our offers, since this is specific to human actions. This “lightness” poses a problem for the editorial director of Current Values, Geoffroy Lejeune, whose publication is also part of the catalogue. “I don’t understand why our media appears on their platform. It seems serious to me. Occasionally, but very rarely, we publish sponsored content (with local authorities in the south of France in particular, twice this year). But it is, of course, specified each time”, assures the editorial director. However, Getfluence offers to publish an advertising article without the sponsored mention for 5,646 euros, at the expense of the advertiser.

The Getfluence site showing the possibility of publishing an article in Current Values ​​without sponsored mention.  (SCREEN CAPTURE FROM GETFLUENCE WEBSITE)

Does the Toulouse company therefore offer an imaginary service? Radio France’s investigation unit discovered that the option had indeed been used (thus that advertorials were published in France without this being mentioned) but mainly on blogs, community sites or travel sites. We also discovered that an influencer company made extensive use of this platform to post misleading stories in favor of its clients, some of whom are foreign governments.

A source within this agency confirmed to us that they have regularly used Getfluence, precisely because it offers this option allowing the sponsored nature of an article not to be displayed. In this case, the visibility of the media does not matter. Because even if it is published on a site that may seem secondary in terms of audience or notoriety, an article can then be shared on social networks as part of an influence campaign. And if the site is well referenced on search engines, it can go back to the top of the links provided by Google or Google News when a user performs a search. “I don’t need it to be in a very strong media, explains this source, I’ll redo your SEO [classement dans les résultats de Google, NDLR] in three days with a few articles.”

Fueling mistrust

This option is therefore very practical for a client who would like to improve his reputation. By publishing content that highlights it and which appears in the first pages of Google, it reduces the visibility of content deemed undesirable, which is in fact sent to more distant pages. It is therefore a form of “laundering” of information which can also appear on Wikipedia, since the texts purchased by influence agencies can be cited as a “legitimate source” in a footnote on the encyclopedia, widely consulted by Internet users. Aware of the challenge it represents in influence campaigns, Wikipedia has launched a project called “Stop pub”, which aims to remove paid contributions from its site. Asked about this, the boss of Getfluence defends himself. “We are not an e-reputation agencysays Marc de Zordo. Our sales representatives are in systematic contact with ‘new users’, which makes it possible to refuse them access to our platform if necessary.” Our survey shows that it has nevertheless been used for e-reputation. And that it risks in the long term, by erasing the borders which exist between publicity and information, to contribute a little more to feed the mistrust which settled between the public and the media.

Alert the Radio France investigation unit:

To send information to Radio France’s investigation unit anonymously and securely, you can now click here: alerter.radiofrance.fr

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