Digital Marketing: When it’s an ad by any other name

green regular question markDo you know the difference between content and an ad? When is an ad content and when is content an ad?

The Federal Trade Commission has issued new guidelines for businesses engaged in native advertising. Native ads often mimic the look of the site and the pages where they appear.

If you’re confused about what native advertising really is, the FTC defines it as, “content that bears a similarity to the news, feature articles, product reviews, entertainment, and other material that surrounds it online.”

The question becomes: can the reader or viewer differentiate between legitimate content and an ad masquerading as content?  What is deceptive advertising?

Whether it’s a blog post, a product link, a review,  sponsored video or other type of native advertising, marketers should consult the FTC’s “Native Advertising: A Guide for Business,” to learn more about what constitutes a deceptive ad.  The FTC presents a series of detailed examples—albeit sometimes confusing—about what constitutes an acceptable versus misleading ad.

Below are just two examples from the FTC:

Example: Fitness Life, an online health and fitness magazine, features articles about exercise, training advice, and product reviews.  An article on Fitness Life’s main page is titled “The 20 Most Beautiful Places to Vacation.”  The article displays images in a scrolling carousel of beautiful spots for fitness enthusiasts to visit.  The Winged Mercury Company paid Fitness Life to create this article and publish it on Fitness Life’s site.  The article says it is “Presented By” Winged Mercury and includes an image of the company’s logo.  Although Winged Mercury’s sponsorship of the article is a form of advertising, the article itself is not, as it does not promote any of Winged Mercury’s products.  It only contains images of places where readers – including potential Winged Mercury customers – might like to visit.  Thus, the article does not need to be identifiable as an ad before or after consumers click into it.

Example: Fitness Life publishes an article entitled “The 20 Most Beautiful Places to Vacation.”  No sponsoring advertiser paid Fitness Life to publish the article.  However, a resort hotel pays Fitness Life to display a photo of its beach resort as the twenty-first image displayed in the article.  The photo has the same look and feel as the images featured in the article.  There is no need to disclose to consumers on the Fitness Life main page that the article is accompanied by advertising.  However, because the photo appears to be part of the article rather than an advertisement, a clear and prominent disclosure of the photo’s paid nature on the click-into page is likely necessary.

So how does a marketer identify an ad so that the consumer knows it up front?  In general, the FTC suggests disclosures should:

  • Use clear and unambiguous language;
  • Use a font and color that’s easy to read;
  • Use a shade that stands out against the background;
  • for audio disclosures, read at a cadence that’s easy for consumers to follow and in words consumers will understand

For more information, read the full “Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses.”