In fitness publishing, health is wealth -- until you get caught.

The publisher of Shape magazine has agreed to modify the format of its branded content following an investigation by the National Advertising Division, which determined that its readers might be misled by advertorials marked as “news.”

American Media Inc., the privately owned publishing giant behind health-related magazines such as Men’s Fitness and Flex, had argued that the financial connection between Shape and its sponsored content was obvious to its “well-educated and sophisticated” readers, but the NAD -- the advertising industry’s self-regulatory body -- disagreed. The investigation concerned an August 2013 article promoting the benefits of Shape brand water supplements. The article, titled “Water Works,” was labeled “news” in the magazine. Stressing the importance of staying hydrated, the article recommends that readers “jazz up” their bottled water with Shape Flavor Boosters. An online version of the article was still active as of early Monday but not labeled as news. It appears to have since been removed.

In a news release Friday, the NAD said it had reviewed the article as part of its routine monitoring program. The division, which is part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, said it was not concerned with the disclosure of a financial connection between Shape magazine and its own products, but rather with the likelihood that highlighting its own products in an article marked “news” would give said products extra editorial weight in the eyes of readers.

The following is from the NAD’s decision summary:

“As the advertiser aptly pointed out, Shape’s well-educated and sophisticated readership ‘have become accustomed to [the informational/endorsement] format and expect and utilize the recommendations in the magazines they purchase to help them make validated lifestyle decisions.’ Readers, however, generally attach different significance to recommendations made in an editorial news article than they would if the same recommendations were made in an advertising format.”

In light of the investigation, the NAD requested that the American Media designate sponsored content “clearly and conspicuously” in the future.

American Media is probably best known for its stable of supermarket tabloids, including Star, the National Enquirer and the now-defunct Sun. The company did not respond to a request for comment. In its advertiser’s statement, however, it agreed to comply with the NAD’s recommendation, citing the ad industry’s practice of self-regulation. “AMI will modify the format in which it promotes its branded products, including discontinuing the association of the label ‘News’ with copy that discusses its products,” the company said.

As native advertising becomes more and more commonplace online -- the New York Times rolled out its first sponsored post last week -- debates are heating up over how, and to what extent, such content should be labeled. If nothing else, the Shape magazine investigation is proof that these questions are not new ones for media companies, which have been running advertorials in print and on television since those media were in their infancy.

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