Journalist Resources published an article containing research and commentary on the increasing use and effectiveness of “native advertising,” a rapidly growing format for sponsored content. (Stefanie Knoll, August 19, 2015, journalists resource.org). The article reports the growing design of ads to look like original or editorial content because “banner” ads are not attracting consumer attention, and the increasing use of ad blocking technology allows consumers to avoid online advertising on sites they visit with their laptops, iPhones and iPads.
The report emphasizes the controversy over native advertisers with proponents seeing it “attractive because it allows them to take advantage of the credibility and authority of journalistic outlets. By making ads appear to be editorial content, the advertisers are able to catch consumers off guard.” Critics contend “that it infringes on the the barrier that should separate the editorial and business sides – a deliberate division meant to protect and maintain journalistic independence.”
This is the debate that frames the ethical dilemma concerning native advertising. There are those who argue consumers do not need to know the content they are viewing is advertising/paid content. However, in my view, if consumers are unaware that the content they are viewing or reading is paid for advertising, they are being misled and treated unethically. Consumers could attach more credibility to the content if they believe it to be original/editorial content. Consumers know that advertising’s purpose is to provide information to “persuade” them to buy a product or service. That is not unethical, unless the ads are disguised to look like editorial content.
This is the position taken by the Institute for Advertising Ethics’ Principle 3: “Advertisers should clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.”
I do believe there is a win-win for consumers and marketers when native advertising is conducted in a truthful and ethical manner. Advertising content should be “attractive” and “blend” with the the media environment in which they are run. But, the consumer needs to know it is paid content. This is the position taken by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB): “Regardless of native advertising unit type, the IAB advocates that, for paid native ad units, clarity and prominence is paramount.” Here are ad disclosure tags being used today to disclose advertising and the advertiser for particular native ads: Sponsored By; Sponsored Post; Presented By; Paid Post; Promoted By; Ad; and Advertisement.
Taking into consideration that ad blocking is now a reality, treating the consumer ethical is critical. Consumers can install an app that will block all advertisements or one that will allow them to “whitelist” sites where they want to keep the advertisements they find attractive and useful. The answer is not to disguise the ad content because consumers will eventually learn and react negatively.
Rather, we should follow the advice of industry professionals that understand the strength of ethically produced native advertising. As an illustration, Jon Salm of MillwardBrown urges, “The key for advertisers will be to partner with the best publishers, and the key for publishers will be to follow the golden rules – confidently identify native ads as sponsored content, match the editorial tone, and create content that resonates with the audience.” “Getting Native Advertising Right”, January 15, 2015, www.millwardbrown.com.
About the Author
Wally Snyder has devoted his entire professional career to working on advertising development, regulation and ethics. He served as a trial lawyer and as Assistant Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission before joining the American Advertising Federation where he served as president and CEO, from 1992–2008. Currently, he serves as Executive Director for the Institute for Advertising Ethics. Wally was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame® in 2009.