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A video made with MSR’s help and promoting an MSR water filter gets Outside accused of unlabeled content marketing.

Outside Magazine named MSR’s Guardian water filter the best out of a group of several filters the magazine tested at MSR’s lab.

Online commenters were quick to jump on the critical bandwagon when Outside magazine posted a gear write-up about the strengths and weaknesses of five types of water filters and treatment options, accompanied by a video about tests of those devices conducted at the Water Lab run by MSR (Mountain Safety Research). Commenters observed with more than a hint of sarcasm that it’s “strange” the best results come from a product made by the lab that did the testing, that “this is not the way to do an unbiased study,” and the content was “clearly an advertorial.”

It wasn’t, according to Outside and MSR. But the video has since been removed from Outside’s website for casting that impression.

“After the video was published, we looked at it again and felt it looked too much like content marketing,” says Outside senior gear editor Axie Navas.

A Cyst Hunt

The project evolved from a conversation between freelance gear writer Joe Jackson and an engineer at MSR’s lab. No money was exchanged, MSR says, and they had no say in the content—hallmarks of real advertorials.

The goal, says Martin Maisonpierre, communications director for MSR, was simply to open up their lab, to let Outside test water filters (an expensive proposition if using a third party). Jackson says he aimed for full disclosure, but in retrospect concedes that his expectations for how that would be perceived were off.

Jackson says he chose the devices, gathered the water samples, and ran the water through products from GRAYL, Potable Aqua, SteriPEN, and Platypus and MSR, both of which are under the Cascade Designs umbrella. He says MSR lab employees tested the treated water to assess how the devices held up to the NSF International P248, a standard for water purification crafted for the military, but an optional test for consumer devices.

When MSR—like anyone else who would like science to support the efficacy of their products—wants to pass those standards, it sends products to a third-party, independent lab to be tested. Testing can cost as much as $80,000 to $100,000, says MSR.

It is perhaps a measure of the inconsistent regulation in these devices that different companies employ different standards when it comes to ensuring the safety of their devices. SteriPEN’s third party tests went with the NSF P248 standard. Camelbak uses the EPA Guide Standard and Protocol for Testing Microbiological Water Filters. Grayl uses NSF residential drinking water standards 42 and 53 which apply, respectively, to non-health contaminants like chlorine and health effects such as cryptosporidium and giardia. Aquamira Water Treatment tablets, like all chemical treatments, are simply registered through the EPA’s pesticide product labeling program, which reviews their ingredients and label information before signing off on the product’s ability to kill microbes.

As everyone who saw the video learned, the end result of Outside’s test was a glowing endorsement for MSR’s soon-to-be-released Guardian.

SteriPEN Responds

In the video, none of the competing treatment devices fared as well as the MSR Guardian. In fact, the video suggested SteriPEN failed every test. This directly contradicts the results of independent, third party labs hired by SteriPEN to perform the very same NSF P248 tests.

SteriPENdeclined an interview but issued the following statement: “SteriPEN’s UV water purification technology meets and exceeds the EPA standards, which has been proven through exhaustive independent third-party testing.”

A New Kind of Story-telling

Content marketing—or native content, branded content or custom content—allows companies to tell stories about their athletes and products, but may be produced or written by the publications where that content appears, and are often paid for by traditional ad buys. In May, we reported on this increasingly popular trend.

The New York Times released an analysis of its own content marketing, produced by T Brand Studio, that found it not only outperformed advertiser-produced content, but some paid posts rivaled the traffic editorial content received.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise given that many magazine editors are moving into content marketing work. The Times’ T Brand Studio is led by former Businessweek energy and environment editor Adam Aston. This year, Sam Bass, former editor of Skiing Magazine became editor and content director for Backbone Media, and former SKI and Skiing magazine senior editor Deborah Williams became managing content editor for the Outdoor Industry Association (SKI and Skiing magazines are owned by Active Interest Media, which also owns SNEWS). Sam Moulton, former executive editor of Outside, became the magazine’s content marketing director

Transparency is key, says Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors.

“If you read a review of a product and it turns out later that the review was written or produced by the manufacturer of the product, and you didn’t know that, you would feel deceived—and would have every right to,” Holt says. “It’s against the law, too.”

That doesn’t mean advertisers shouldn’t have the chance to put their messages out there for readers and consumers, in whatever form seems to be successful—and numbers are still to come for the success of content marketing. It just means a reader should know the motivations of the person or brand producing the content, whether it’s to sell or simply inform.

“We believe … that the value of magazine media, the value of any form of media really, is dependent on consumer and reader trust,” Holt says. “Once reader trust is eroded, the value of the publication as a source of information or entertainment and, frankly as an advertising medium, is eroded.”

So what were we looking at? Outside claims their intention with the video and article that accompanied it was to add to the information publicly available for those interested in knowing more about the efficacy of the devices they trust to keep them from getting sick in the backcountry—so, a goal to inform, rather than to sell. But achieving that goal hinged on accepting what essentially amounted to tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind donations (Cascade Designs estimates their costs to help Outside with the tests were roughly a couple thousand dollars). So where does that fit in a landscape where luxury press trips and free test gear are the norm?

It’s a question our industry is trying to navigate, and the waters are still as murky as silty glacial runoff.

Editor’s note: Third-party water filter tests can cost companies tens of thousands of dollars. This article has been updated to reflect Cascade Designs’ response, that their out-of-pocket costs for Outside’s tests were significantly lower.