FTC to 'weigh' ads masquerading as content

wolf in sheepskin


The Federal Trade Commission will look into so-called native advertising – ad content that, except for almost invisible disclaimers, looks and sounds just like editorial content on websites – this December, Advertising Age reported September 17.

While the feds will be trying to learn whether consumers do, in fact, “clearly recognize sponsored content as advertising,” digital publishers will be saying, of course they do.

Big bucks

Lots of money’s riding on the answer.

According to Digiday,

  • One Twitter promoted topic sells for $120,000, Supporting tweets are $80,000. Each.
  • One BuzzFeed sponsored article is $20,000 – a bargain $100,000 for a package of six.

Raging debate

“[A] debate is raging around whether publishers are making it clear to readers that the content they’re consuming is sponsored,” Ad Age notes, and the FTC’s involvement is just its latest extension. “We certainly are aware of the internal debate on the topic,” FTC attorney Laura Sullivan confirmed.

In a panel discussion earlier this year, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith claimed that “discerning readers have no trouble distinguishing sponsored content” – that is, “in-house, advertiser-funded content that Buzzfeed and other online publications label as sponsored yet publish in their standard editorial templates” – from actual reportage.

Among other things, that may depend on just how discerning readers are.

“Some part of me just grieves, grieves, at the thought that the magazine of Thoreau and Longfellow [i.e., the Atlantic]” runs sponsored posts from corporations like Chevron and organizations like the Church of Scientology on its website, blogger Andrew Sullivan lamented. “If journalism is not understood to be separate from advertising, then it has lost something incredibly important in a democratic society,” he added.

“BuzzFeed is trying to make ads that are as charming and delightful as articles, but the more clearly they say WARNING THIS IS A WEB ADVERTISEMENT, the more likely people are to ignore their charming delights, because we have been taught to ignore all Web ads,” Atlantic business editor Derek Thompson rationalized.

It’s not just “Web ads.”

What’s “taught” people to ignore ads, regardless of medium, is the inane, self-centered, and obnoxious nature of most ads themselves. Consumers have always ignored ads like that in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television, so why should online ads be any exception?

But when ads are engaging and involving, when they talk to consumers instead of at them, when they offer information and benefits that actually have something to do with the target audience’s wants and needs, then people do, in fact pay attention. Not only do they notice, but they buy.

Without the sneaky subterfuge of disguising them as news articles.

Don’t get your hopes up

The FTC will be taking just one day, December 4, to address the whole issue. On that one Wednesday, according to the government agency, “industry representatives, academics, consumer advocates and regulators” will gather “to explore ‘changes in how paid messages are presented to consumers and consumers’ recognition and understanding of these messages.'”

This is a subject that the FTC has some, but not a lot of, background on. In the past, they’ve dealt with infomercials, search engine marketing, and advertorials, which are similar in principle but different in practice. and have on occasion brought lawsuits against offenders.

Lawsuits, of course, are something the industry want to avoid. To that end, the Online Publishers Association released research in July showing that their members really, really cared about labeling native advertising clearly. “We encourage the industry at large to embrace this,” said OPA president Pam Horan, “as it is not only important to maintaining a trusted relationship with the consumer but demonstrates to law makers and the administration that self-regulation works.”

Not to be outdone, the Interactive Advertising Bureau announced it was establishing a task force to explore best practices and standards.

Needless to say, “encouraging”and “exploring” aren’t the same as enforcing, and establishing “best practices and standards” is no guarantee that anyone will follow them. A look at the Atlantic, BuzzFeed and many other popular websites will show you just how well “self-regulation works.”

So don’t get your hopes up for any changes.

“We certainly will weigh the information and consider what the next steps will be,” FTC attorney Sullivan told Ad Age, but “I think it’s premature to say that there will be any next steps.”

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