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.

Are comment sections on news websites on the way out?

Trying to tame “the world of horrible Internet awfulness.”  (David Tarp, CEO, Tumblr)

Online CommentsOne of the most empowering aspects of the Internet is its ability to foster online interaction and feedback, wherein “regular people” have a megaphone in addition to journalists and writers on publisher websites.

But there’s an ugly side to the public dialogue, unfortunately: There’s an awful lot of verbal “dirty laundry” that gets put on display.

It’s sort of like taking younger children to the state fair or a sporting event — and then trying to shield them from the loud profanity (and worse) that they overhear.

The fact is, you can’t get away from the coarseness on online comment sections – particularly if the news content pertains to political or socio-cultural topics.

It’s often a “drive to the bottom” where social norms and common decency fall by the wayside in the name of airing grievances or settling scores.

It extends to less potentially inflammatary zones beyond polarizing politics, too.  Researchers have found that people who read the same news story about a new technology, but who are exposed to different sets of coments — one set fair and the other nasty — have completely different responses to the news story itself.  In the research, commenter anonymity and the ability to strongly attack a news story without the need to back it up with facts, caused ill effects that were neither accurate or fair.

The researchers dubbed it “The Nasty Effect.”

For some time now, Internet news and information sites have tried to strike a balance between access and interactivity on the one hand … and civility and decorum on the other.

In many cases, the quest has been frustratingly difficult. Here’s what some publishers have said about the issue:

“There’s got to be a better [way] to interact without comments taking away from the article or denigrating the people who are reported on.”  — Craig Newman, Chicago Sun-Times

“One of the worst things about writing in public is fielding random ad hominem attacks … in the space in which you’ve poured out your precious thoughts.”  — Ev Williams, Medium

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”  — Suzanne LeBarre, Popular Science

As a result, now we’re seeing more instances of publishers and bloggers killing their comment sections completely.  Consider these examples:

… As of this month, the Chicago Sun-Times has axed its comment capability for the foreseeable future.

… The much anticipated March 2014 launch of Vox (Ezra Klein’s news venture), doesn’t provide for feedback comments.

… The same goes for The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s website.

Popular Science shut down its comment sections this past September.

… Atlantic Media’s Quartz business site hasn’t ever allowed comments on its site since its launch in 2012.

… And neither has Tumblr.

But it seems rather unrealistic to think that comments sections can be banned from the Internet outright. That would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Instead, a via media approach may be what the Huffington Post has done. This past December, it implemented a policy wherein commenters must use their Facebook accounts and real names in order to post a comment on Huffington Post stories.

Those who wished to continue posting comments under pseudonyms have had to “appeal” for the right to do.

The goal? To make people think twice before publishing strongly worded comments — the kind that say as much about the poster as they do about the object of their commentary.

Despite the predictable howls from some readers who feel that the right to express an opinion without fear of reprisal is a big part of the appeal of the Internet, four months later the Huffington Post sees the move in positive terms.

The publisher’s community director Tim McDonald reports that the number of “faux” accounts in its system has gone way down – and the quality of discourse is up.

With this approach, perhaps “shameless” needn’t upstage  “shame” after all — and the benefits of interactivity and debate can be preserved at the same time.