We’ve followed the controversy about native advertising with a lot of interest. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been scrutinizing—and may even attempt to regulate—the way that media and brands use native advertising. But what exactly is native advertising? Amazingly, there’s not a clear answer. Even the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which really ought to know, admits that to a large extent “native is in the eye of the beholder, depending on where one sits in the ecosystem and the strategic and media objectives of the marketer.”
The FTC steps in … maybe
By many definitions, native advertising includes Twitter promoted tweets, Facebook sponsored stories, YouTube featured videos and more. But most of the controversy swirls around news. You might remember how The Atlantic got into big trouble last year with “sponsored content” (that is, native advertising) that looked an awful lot like an article praising the Church of Scientology. The magazine quickly issued a straightforward apology: “We screwed up.” This was a cautionary tale about adopting new technologies without clearly understanding it or putting strict policies in place. It might also have been one reason the FTC held a workshop last December called Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?
FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez offered the agency’s view that native advertising “imitates the form and style of the media in which it’s featured.” In the end, though, the event raised more questions than it answered. Adweek reported at the time that ”after hearing from all parts of the industry, from academicians to publishers and ad networks, FTC officials said they would have to think about the next steps.” In a later post on the Content Marketing Institute’s blog, author and agency exec Kirk Cheyfitz dismissed native advertising as just “a passing fad in the slow demise of traditional advertising.” In his view, the FTC’s concern is irrelevant, since “publishers and their audiences are not particularly valuable to advertisers in a digital world.”
Guacamole and Twizzlers
In the end, the most damning case made against native advertising came in a brilliant, 11-minute segment on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers,” Oliver told his audience. “Separately, they’re good. But if mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.”
Until we know what the FTC plans to do about native advertising (if anything), there’s one smart, simple approach every advertiser should take. Clearly mark your ads in any “native” environment as exactly what they are—digital ads that you’ve bought to reach potential customers. Otherwise, you’re on a fast track to losing consumers’ trust … if they have any left in the first place.