The FTC Cracks Down on Native Advertising Abuse

But what difference will it make? Only time will tell …

FTIt had to happen: After years of publications uploading native advertising content that’s barely labeled as such, the Federal Trade Commission has handed down new guidelines that leave very little wiggle room in what constitutes proper labeling of paid advertising material.

Published under the title Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements, the FTC’s new guidelines, which run more than 10 pages in length, make it more difficult than ever to “camouflage” advertising as “legitimate” news content.

What it boils down to is the stipulation that any sponsored content must be clearly labeled as advertising – using wording that the vast majority of readers will understand instantly.

Here’s how the FTC guidelines describe it:

“Terms likely to be understood include ‘Ad,’ ‘Advertisement,’ ‘Paid Advertisement,’ ‘Sponsored Advertising Content,’ or some variation thereof. Advertisers should not use terms such as ‘Promoted’ or “Promoted Stories,’ which in this context are, at best, ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site.”

Another key provision is warning against advertising content mimicking the look and feel of surrounding editorial content – things like the layout characteristics, headline design treatment, the use of fonts and photography.

And here’s another kicker: the FTC lumps offending advertisers in the same pile as the people who create the materials, in that its policy statement doesn’t apply just to advertisers.  So ad agencies, MarComm companies and graphic designers, beware.

Quoting again from the FTC document:

“In appropriate circumstances the FTC has taken action against other parties who helped create deceptive advertising content – for example, ad agencies and operators of affiliate advertising networks. Everyone who participates directly or indirectly in creating or presenting native ads should make sure that ads don’t mislead consumers about their commercial nature. 

“Marketers who use native advertising have a particular interest in ensuring that anyone participating in the promotion of their products is familiar with the basic truth-in-advertising principle that an ad should be identifiable as an ad to consumers.”

Of course, these new guidelines are only going to make it harder for advertisers – and publishers – to be able to utilize advertising techniques that have, up to now, been far more effective than online display advertising.

iab-logoPredictably, we’re hearing mealy-mouthed statements from the industry in response. A spokesperson for the Interactive Advertising Bureau had this to say:

“While guidance serves great benefit to the industry, it must also be technically feasible, creatively relevant, and not stifle innovation. To that end, we have reservations about some elements of the Commission’s guidance.”

What bothers the Interactive Advertising Bureau in particular is the “plain language” provisions in the FTC’s guidelines, which IAB considers “overly descriptive.”

Translation: there’s concern that publishers can no longer label advertising using such euphemisms as “partner content” or “promoted post.”

Others seem less concerned, however. Sites such as Mashable and Huffington Post appear to be onboard with the new guidelines.

Besides, as one spokesperson said, “When the FTC issues guidelines, you’re better off when you follow them than when you don’t.”

… That sounds about right.

2 thoughts on “The FTC Cracks Down on Native Advertising Abuse

  1. It’ll be interesting to see if this will impact the guidelines that Facebook has for in-feed advertisements. My first ad was rejected because it had more than 20% text and less than 80% image.

    You’ve seen those sponsored ads that look like a picture post with the little “sponsored” word in gray under the teaser text. It seemed that the intention was for the ad not to look like one. People often “like” and “share” those as informational.

  2. I’ve just been – and still am – working one the issue of “framing”. It is extremely difficult to survey since it pervades nearly our entire life. Perhaps the experience of our lower intestines giving us an unmistakable message “gotta go . . . or else” still remains what it is.

    Considering such an ubiquitous fabric of falsifications, we must become willing to challenge the majority of the verbiage we are surrounded by. A euphemism consists of making something bad sound good. I would consider that a lie.

    Take the verb “receive”. Isn’t receiving something good? A problem arises when you “receive” a death sentence. Just learned another expression today: ”native advertising”. Is that advertising by Native American tribes? No, it would be spelled with a capital “N”. Aaah, maybe it is writing that was conceived, gestated and born as advertising. I guess that’s it. Not to get too far afield philosophically – and I well could – I think the ethical question of counting on the transparency – or invisibility – of advertising may need to be addressed.
    Are not all media essentially used as distraction?

    Does this not a priori obfuscate the fact that here is someone who wants your money, and he/she will try and find a way to make you want to give it to them, mostly without a really clear discernment process leading to that leaning. I don’t want to call it decision because it mostly builds up to a spending action where the right hand often doesn’t know what the left is doing. So, this is the fundamental premise.

    We know the reader or viewer or listener doesn’t want to stop and discern what information it is they ingest. They don’t want to ask who is “providing” (another euphemism for a peddler) the information and what her or his or its motivation might be. This makes the motivation-hiding even easier.

    Enough for now. Bottom line: I think that all advertising should be required to bear a Surgeon General’s Warning like: This Message Contains Content Known To Any Discerning Person To Cause Self-Destructive Spending Decisions Or Other Hardly Reversible Harm.

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