Long before we called them “native ads,” we called them “advertorials” and publishers took great care to set them apart from their editorial content.
But as digital media has evolved, and consumers have become increasingly savvy, the once well-established lines between the two factions have blurred, making it more and more difficult to discern the difference between editorial and advertising. It is perhaps this ambiguity that has driven the FCC to issue new guidelines that require a clear disclose that native ads are indeed advertising.
When the FCC Talks…
To help companies better understand this new policy, the FCC has released Native Advertising: A Guide for Business. The 6,000+ word guide boils down to two main points:
- Transparency – An ad shouldn’t pretend to be anything else but an ad
- Disclosure – If an ad is in any way ambiguous, it must be clearly disclosed as an ad
The new guidelines go on to state that advertisers cannot use “deceptive door openers” that unscrupulously encourage consumers to view advertising content. As such, “advertisers are responsible for ensuring that native ads are identifiable as advertising before consumers arrive at the main advertising page (emphasis mine).” What’s more, the advertising content itself cannot be deceptive.
A native ad should be evaluated by:
- The similarity of its written or visual style to the publisher’s site on which it appears
- The degree to which it is distinguishable from other content on the site.
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
What the FCC is really doing is cracking down on vague or misleading language. According to its guidelines, advertisers should avoid using:
- Technical or industry jargon;
- Different terminology to mean the same thing in different places on a publisher site;
- The same terminology to mean different things on a publisher site;
- Terms that customarily have different meanings to consumers in other situations;
- Unfamiliar icons or abbreviations; or
- Company logos or brand names unaccompanied by a clear text disclosure.
The FCC guidelines leave little wiggle room. “Terms likely to be understood include ‘Ad,’ ‘Paid Advertisement,’ ‘Sponsored Advertising Content,’ or some variation thereof.” ‘Promoted’ or ‘Promoted Story’ are deemed to be ambiguous and should be avoided.
The IAB’s Resposne
Even before the FCC guidelines, the industry has been policing itself. According to a press release on the IAB’s website, the trade organization “has…been at the forefront of highlighting the important distinction of disclosure both before the consumer clicks on a native ad or other form of sponsored content, and after the click, when the consumer arrives at the destination site or page.”
About the FCC’s guidelines, said Brad Weltman, Vice President, Public Policy, IAB said: “while guidance serves great benefit to 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. In particular, the section on ‘clarity of meaning’ in native advertising disclosures is overly prescriptive, especially absent any compelling evidence to justify some terms over others.”
What it all means
You don’t have to go far to find a native ad. Legacy publishers such as Forbes and The New York Times along with a host of others have made the format an integral part of the online experience. Native ads have clearly been successful in both driving revenue for publishers and meeting the goals of advertisers.
But evidently, change is in the air. The FCC’s guidelines are a recognition that native advertising works, but the question implicit in its language is “why does it work?”
In the future, publishers and advertisers will have to work together to prove that native works not as a result of ambiguous language, but because the format is beneficial to both them and consumers alike.