Two recent judgments against some leading content discovery platforms indicate that this is a global problem:
The threat of government regulation aside, common sense would dictate that advertisers need to provide consumers with a heads-up when they are about to experience paid-for content -- especially if it looks like editorial from a trusted news source. After all, marketers are going online to try to engage one-on-one with consumers. But meaningful relationships require meaningful disclosure. Relationships that start off on a misleading premise are unlikely to prosper.
And it’s so unnecessary, assuming the content is something the advertiser is proud of. As Bob Garfield has pointed out, “If the content is so wonderful, the advertiser should want his fingerprints -- and logo -- all over it.” Appearing to disguise a brand association could imply the opposite. Garfield has a simple guideline for meaningful disclosure: “if you want to run advertising that could be mistaken for editorial content, the advertising must be prominently labeled, ‘This is an ad.’”
Certainly the IAB is in agreement; its guidelines for native advertising disclosure state that “Regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is paid advertising vs. what is publisher editorial content.”
This is as true for publishers as for advertisers. They need to have clear standards for disclosure so they don’t hurt their editorial credibility. This is especially true for news/information sites, as opposed to pure entertainment: one study indicates that viewers would be three time more concerned about a brand creating content in a publication like the New York Times than Buzzfeed. (The Times is well aware of this, and gets high marks for ensuring readers can differentiate between native ads and editorial).
Given its ability to attract user attention, native advertising has a place in a marketer’s toolkit. But like many sharp tools, it can cause a lot of damage if it’s not used properly: not just to the individual brand, but, by violating consumers’ trust, potentially to the concept itself.
And trust is central to a relationship. Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway said, “The highest form a civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust. Not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.” In such a world, regulation is not needed, either, as everyone can be trusted to do the right thing.
Clicks and exposures can be measured easily. The damage caused by creating a negative brand impression is a more difficult metric -- but the fact that it isn’t measured doesn’t mean it isn’t real. A well-respected associate of Munger’s -- aka The Sage of Omaha -- has said that “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” Marketers, take heed.