Native advertising has been enjoying considerable resurgence the past year, due in no small part to its potential to be mutually beneficial to advertisers and publications. Traditional sources like The New York Times are embracing native advertising as part of their strategy, with “high hopes” for its payoff. They follow online sites like Buzzfeed, Mashable, and The Huffington Post, all of which have already been using their editorial and production departments to generate sponsored content.
Native advertising is becoming more main stream, but that’s not the end of the conversation. Native advertising occupies such a gray area that the Federal Trade Commission titled a conference about native advertising after Robin Thicke’s popular but unfortunately misogynistic song “Blurred Lines.” Advertorial-wise, these out-of-focus lines arise when paid content resembles editorial content.
Why does this matter to PR pros? One of the appeals of native advertising is the chance to catch the attention of and appeal to a certain audience segment and receive instant feedback to reader reactions. In its worst cases, native advertising is a bait-and-switch routine; in its best, it’s an informative, useful item that also happens to be paid for. Enter the FTC, which hopes that not only will there be a clear demarcation between editorial content and native advertising, but that the advertisers and marketers will self-regulate.
There’s nothing unethical about native advertising, as long as it’s clear to the reader that it’s sponsored. Of course, defining “clear” is a murky process, but we’re not here to define any guidelines; we’re here to look at ethics and best practices that PR pros can employ for native advertising. And many marketing or advertising pros aren’t so keen on labeling their advertisement, fearing that it undermines the purpose of the advertorial in the first place. But this fear may be misplaced, as some preliminary research shows that a third of consumers don’t care if content is an advertisement or editorial, and that many would be more likely to select an item if they knew it was an ad.
Being an ethical PR practitioner means that you don’t want to compromise a journalist’s ethics, either. And since one of the tenets of ethical journalism, according to the Society of Professional Journalists (SJP), is to “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two,” the best way to start is with transparency instead of worrying about labeling the ad. This includes not only a label stating that it’s sponsored, but also physical demarcation such as borders and a different font. The FTC stressed, however, working towards such transparency should be a joint responsibility of publication and marketer.
During the FTC workshop, advertising widgets such as Outbrain or Tabula were a popular topic, however FTC staff pointed them out as specific examples of native advertising which were difficult to distinguish form editorial content.
The lack of hard and fast rules means that communication between PR/marketing/advertising and the publication is absolutely necessary. One way to do this is to work with outlets like Buzzfeed, which creates branded content in tandem with sponsors. It’s up to the outlet to ensure that in creating both editorial and advertorial content that journalism ethics are upheld.
An excellent resource to help ensure native advertising meets existing regulations is the FTC’s .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising, and make sure to check it for periodic updates.
How do you work with ethical issues in native advertising? Will the FTC’s findings impact content marketing pieces picked up by another outlet, and what implications would there be?