Good Native Advertising Has Little To Fear From FTC
Today, in Washington D.C., the Federal Trade Commission is exploring the blurring of lines that is occurring between digital content and digital advertisements. Clearly, publishers and marketers are concerned the government could put a damper on what some see as a magic elixir for digital publishing.
First, I learned that native advertising is not new - it's been around at least since the radio soap operas of the 1930s - but it certainly is different in the digital era.
Second, I discovered that no one - not the publisher, not the advertiser and not the consumer - benefits from native advertising when the native ad is completely disguised as editorial content. Perhaps some publishers are going this route, but it's not smart. And it won't be the route that credible publishers pursue because it puts the trust a publisher has established with an audience, and hence their greatest asset, at risk.
From the marketer's point of view, advertising completely hidden in editorial's clothing doesn't make sense either. Robert Rose, chief strategist for the Content Marketing Institute (and a great resource for my reporting), thinks it would be poor execution and run counter to the goal of content marketing, which is to associate the advertiser's brand with the positive feelings an audience has toward a publisher.
Every publisher I spoke with for the article, from Foreign Affairs to Slate to Hearst UK, echoes this sentiment. I gathered the same from listening in to the FTC's native advertising "workshop" today.
In other words, you can slice it up any way you want - call it sponsored, featured, branded, promoted - there are really only two kinds of native advertising: good and bad.
The FTC is in the game of preventing consumers from being deceived by advertisers. Specifically, Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits ''unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.'' So it's not a matter if the FTC can step in, but a matter of whether native advertising is deceptive - which is defined as advertising that is likely to deceive consumers and material in their decision to buy a product.
And let's not pretend the FTC does no good: the FTC enforces the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which keeps in check such things as the use of false headers and deception of who is sending and what is being sent, and without which our email inboxes would have been fully overrun by diet pill offers by now. Unless, of course, you think pill-pushing spammers would self-regulate.
Admittedly, it's not like the old days of preventing a snake oil salesman selling a patently fake product, but we can expect the FTC will pursue forms digital advertising that consumers can "easily distinguish" from editorially content. That's a bit of a grey area. But talk to any publisher that has already gone down this road or is considering it, and worth their salt, and they don't have an interest in deceiving their readers. Most claims to the contrary, I think, are from misunderstanding what native advertising is and should be.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.