Advertising doesn’t have to be overtly misleading to be deceptive
Most likely, the phrase “native ads” has escaped your attention. But if you’re a concerned person when it comes to news sources, you might want to look into what native ads are, how publications are using them, and their possible effect on readers.
Native ads are either articles or videos. The advertiser produces the piece with the intent to promote a product, while matching the form and style (same typeface and print size as adjacent news stories) that readers or viewers would expect to be the work of an editorial staff.
Plain and simple, a “native ad” is an advertisement disguised as a news story. You probably have seen or maybe even read a few, possibly without knowing it. The government says ads that aren’t identifiable as advertising are deceptive.
Many newspapers and websites accept native ads, although the good ones note that these pieces are advertisements. You’ll often find the word “advertisement” at the very top, but it’s easy to miss. Some newspapers go a little farther and run the native ads in a box. That’s makes it a little easier to spot them.
Some TV stations have run native ads for years. Channel 9 in Wausau runs a weekly feature produced by the Wisconsin dairy industry, and for a long time, never bothered to tell viewers the reports were promotional. It’s not that these reports were deceptive – it’s just that viewers should have known they were watching a promotional piece in a news program.
It may have been coincidental, but after I first pointed out what the TV station was doing some years ago, the station added proper attribution at the end of the reports. The change also may have come about after the Federal Communications Commission started to make noise about cracking down and fining stations that violated regulations that made advertising look like news.
On TV, it has to be clear to the viewers, whether they’re watching a valid news story or an advertising piece disguised as news. But there’s no such rule for print media.
Many newspapers began accepting native ads as the industry began its decline, hoping the revenue would help carry them through. But I’ve always felt that was a cop-out – that newspapers were tarnishing their reputations by running such material. I know I’m a purist.
I went online to Yahoo News and found an example mixed in among real news stories, although this one was marked an “advertorial” in muted gray at the top of the piece. The headline read, “4 Foods Surgeons Are Now Calling ‘Death Foods.’” The casual reader is led to believe this is an important health story.
After some ominous music and scary copy that says some of these food are banned in Europe, the viewer got an invitation to click on a video to learn about the four ‘health’ foods that you should throw out immediately.
There you see the logo of Probiotic America, and one would hope that would be a good clue that’s they’re dealing with an ad. It featured a presumably compensated Los Angeles medical doctor droning on about digestive issues.
It takes several minutes for him to get to the point – naming those four “death foods.” I only stayed around for two, including diet soda. Although I didn’t stay for the whole “short” video which may actually have been a half-hour long, I suspect he was hawking a Probiotic product.
While you and I may be sharp enough to distinguish a native ad from a news story, the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology recently found otherwise. It said “many consumers think that native ads are actually written by reporters or editors, even when those ads are labeled ‘sponsored report.’”
In a Media Post story, reporter Wendy Davis quotes Berkeley professor Chris Hoofnagle, who said “Our findings suggest that even with a prominent disclosure, a substantial number of consumers are misled about the advertising nature of advertorials.”
In another study at Grady College in Georgia, only 17 of 242 people could identify native ads as paid advertisements.
The Berkeley report came out just a week before the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued new rules on native ads. The regulations say native content must be clearly identified as advertising before anyone starts reading it.
The FTC says, “The more a native ad is similar in format and topic to content on the publisher’ site, the more likely that a disclosure will be necessary to prevent deception.” The FTC says native ads must carry labels such as “advertisement,” “paid advertisement” or “sponsored advertising content.”
Projections for spending on native ads show it will be a $21 billion business within two years. That means you’re going to see many, many more of them. Marketers like them, claiming native ads work better than banner ads. They also work well on mobile devices.
Perhaps there’s nothing really wrong with native ads, as long as the sponsor uses transparency and disclosure. But it now puts the onus on you to determine what’s news and what’s advertising – something newspapers have done traditionally for you.
Hoofnagle thinks advertisers should differentiate advertorials from editorial content in the text and use a different type face. That could help, but I’m afraid many consumers still won’t be able to determine which is which.
It seems to boil down to “Perpendat itaque lector cave” or “Permissum lector caveo,” depending on which English to Latin translator service you use. Or maybe just “Caveat lector.” “Let the reader beware.”