“It’s beginning to look a lot like…content.”
The “It’s” in this case is advertising—more specifically, native advertising or sponsored content. We’re seeing it more and more these days, ads that companies are running—sometimes even designing and writing for clients—that mirror the content around them. It’s proving very effective to the point that the Federal Trade Commission has decided to look into it. And SIPA and SIIA can play a part in this.
The FTC will host a workshop on Dec. 4 here in Washington, D.C., to examine the practice of blending advertisements with news, entertainment and other content in digital media. The workshop will unite publishing and ad industry representatives, consumer advocates, academics, and government regulators to explore changes in how paid messages are presented to consumers and consumers’ recognition and understanding of these messages.
According to the FTC, this fits snugly into their role of helping consumers identify advertisements as advertising wherever they appear. They have made recent updates to the Search Engine Advertising guidance, the Dot Com Disclosures guidance, and the Endorsements and Testimonials Guides, “as well as decades of law enforcement actions against infomercial producers and operators of fake news websites marketing products.”
As I said, SIIA wants to take a role in this, based on input from our members. If you have feelings or opinions about this, please let us know—for or against. (Here’s my email.) Here are some of the topics that the workshop may cover:
- “What is the origin and purpose of the wall between regular content and advertising, and what challenges do publishers face in maintaining that wall in digital media, including in the mobile environment?”
- “In what ways are paid messages integrated into, or presented as, regular content and in what contexts does this integration occur?” How has mobile affected this?”
- “What business models support and facilitate the monetization and display of native or integrated advertisements?” Who controls this?
- “How can ads effectively be differentiated from regular content, such as through the use of labels and visual cues?” Does social media blur these lines?
- “What does research show about how consumers notice and understand paid messages that are integrated into, or presented as, news, entertainment or regular content?”
A MediaBrix survey found that “the majority of online adults who have seen advertising that appears as content in the past 12 months find the ads misleading”—as high as 86%” (for sponsored video ads). Close to 50% of those polled find promoted tweets, one of Twitter’s revenue-producing methods, misleading.
FTC blogger Lesley Fair called this “the trendy topic du jour,” so it is probably a good time to take a look. The popular site BuzzFeed pretty much blurs the lines completely. And it seems to be working. (An article a few months ago said it was their sole revenue source.) They have “Featured Partners” on certain stories that look just like the rest of the stories. So “The 10 Greatest Comebacks in Entertainment History” is sponsored by The Michael J. Fox Show. It has 33 comments, none mentioning its ad status. And “12 Lengths That Robin Williams Has Gone to Make Us Laugh” is sponsored by his new show, The Crazy Ones. That one has 12 comments, all complimentary.
Those stories actually change each time you click on it. For the Michael J. Fox Show we get “10 Ways All Families Are Basically the Same” and “12 Things We Love About Michael J. Fox.” It’s an interesting strategy—multiple content pieces based on one sponsor. And here’s something funny. I found a Washington Post article about a Church of Scientology advertorial that appeared on the Atlantic Magazine website and went “a bit too far.” The article is broken up by what looks like a subhead to the story—“Get Your Business Online” is the one I saw—but it’s actually an ad. Now I’m confused.
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 as managing editor. Follow Ronn on Twitter at @SIPAOnline