Publishers and marketers believe they are being responsible by distinguishing native advertising—advertising designed to look and feel like journalism—from news content by using colors, boxes, and labels containing terms like “sponsored by” or “presented by.” But none of those things work with all users or on all platforms. In fact, these elements may leave users even more confused, researchers said at a Federal Trade Commission workshop in Washington, DC on Wednesday.
Consumers skip over labels, and even when they see them, many don’t understand what the labels mean, said David J. Franklyn, professor and director at the McCarthy Institute for Intellectual Property and Technology Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where he researches consumer knowledge of native and search advertisements.
“When people are presented with a story that looks like a story, they think it’s a story,” said Franklyn, who presented a study that surveyed 10,000 people both in the US and abroad. “What we’ve found is that there is deep confusion about the difference between paid and unpaid content.”
Whether you call it native advertising, branded journalism, or sponsored content, there have been attempts to blur the lines between advertising and journalism since at least 1912, when congress passed the Newspaper Publicity Act, which required publishers to label advertisements that resembled news stories and editorials. The law is still in effect today, but branded content at news organizations has become more pervasive in recent years. Nearly three quarters of US publishers offer native advertising opportunities on their websites, Marketing Land reported in July. Another report found that 41 percent of brands and 34 percent of ad agencies currently use native advertising “with many others hoping to do so in the coming year,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
Marketers argue that branded content allows for more relevant and highly targeted messaging and provides added value to consumers by increasing awareness and generating buzz and engagement around their products. Critics, on the other hand, respond that this practice improperly exploits consumers’ trust in a publisher or deceives them outright to influence their purchasing decisions. The FTC, which has the authority to protect consumers against unfair or deceptive ads, only requires that a percentage of reasonable consumers are confused by the disclosure in order for a publisher and/or marketer to run afoul of the agency’s prohibition of unfair and deceptive practices. The problem is the seamless, inconspicuous manner in which advertising is now being integrated into digital content.
Even really educated and savvy consumers can be fooled. For example, marketers and publishers participating in the daylong workshop believed they were being responsible by labeling content “sponsored by,” “brought to you by,” or “presented by.” But Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of Information Privacy Programs at Berkeley Law & Technology Center, said when he sees those labels, he reaches a very different conclusion.
“When I hear ‘sponsored by’ I think about things like PBS,” said Hoofnagle. “When you watch the MacNeil/Lehrer Show (PBS NewsHour), it starts out with ‘brought to you by BP.’ I would never think that BP told the television show what stories to run. What I assumed from that representation is that BP provided underwriting that laid a groundwork for the good reporting at PBS.” With native advertising, Hoofnagle learned Wednesday, the exact opposite is true. Rather than publishers independently creating content and then going out to get advertising to support it, advertisers approach publishers and say, “I want you to run a story that is compatible with my product,” continued Hoofnagle. “It doesn’t have to promote my product, but it has to puff it up in some ways. That’s a complete opposite mental model.” Franklyn agreed, calling it an “inversion” of the relationship between content and advertising in the publishing industry.
Debating the use of logos, labels, colors, and boxes (colors may not show up the same way on a mobile device as on a desktop, or some users may not see the color difference), publishers and advertising executives on hand for the workshop agreed that transparency is key in terms of effective advertising and preserving consumer trust, even if they failed to agree on exactly how to achieve it. They talked about techniques that differ from publisher to publisher and the necessity for ensuring whatever labels are used to distinguish native ads from journalism should follow the content as it is shared across platforms from one consumer to the next. Then they acknowledged having no control over transparency at all if a user chooses to remove the brand information when sharing the content.
Journalists at some publications, including Mashable, create advertising content, perhaps blurring the lines even further. Adam Ostrow, Mashable’s chief strategy officer, has said that it allows the company to provide more “in-depth” reporting. “What we try to do at Mashable is to marry the themes, ideas, and topics that are relevant to brands with editorial content that isn’t promoting the brand, talking about their products, but aligns with the themes that they’re interested in,” Ostrow said.
The Huffington Post, on the other hand, has an in-house marketing team that creates branded content that is separate from the organization’s news staff. (BuzzFeed has an analogous setup.) HuffPost journalists aren’t even allowed to share sponsored content from social media accounts, “they must only retweet it verbatim from our accounts so that it is always 100-percent transparent and clear that the content came from HuffPost Partner Studio,” a team of writers, editors, designers, and strategists dedicated to helping advertising partners create branded content on the site, said Partner Studio director Tessa Gould.
In the end, one panelist stated that the gravest threat of native advertising or branded content is not the deception of consumers or the unmet needs of brands. “The gravest threat is to the media themselves,” said Bob Garfield, co-host of On The Media and a MediaPost columnist. “With every transaction, publishers are mining and exporting that rarest of rare resources: trust. Those deals (with advertisers) will not save the media industry. They will, in a matter of years, destroy the media industry, one boatload of shit at a time.”