What Does This Mean? FTC Schedules a Workshop to Talk about Native Advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission has just announced it will hold a “workshop” on native advertising on Dec. 4 in Washington. Unlike a lot of workshops you go to that are about learning how to do something, ones the FTC hold are often about undoing things.

Namely, in this case, native advertising, the sometimes blurry advertising form that has one foot in paid, one foot in owned and has, with those sturdy two feet, gotten a lot of traction in the ad industry because it works well within the format of the PC, tablets and smartphones.

Native combines selling goods with, sort of typically, writing or making videos that relate to where those goods are used.  In print, its closest cousin seems to be the advertorial. Most publishers and editors try to make advertorial copy look dissimilar from the style of the publication, and additionally note that it’s advertising. (In my experience as an editor, the ad department had an uncanny ability to forget to add that little disclaimer “design element.”)



“Not since the legislative debate over spam back in the early part of the millennium has a digital marketing term been so riddled by obfuscation and misunderstanding as native advertising,” says a new report from Altimeter Group.

The summary of its study continues: “A quick search of the term on Google returns an impressive 219 million results, yet to date there’s been no real definition of what marketers, publishers, agencies, social media platforms, or any other players in the digital ecosystem mean when they bandy it about.”

Which, you’d think, would be a good place for the FTC to start its little workshop. recently addressed the native advertising question with a short piece, and related video. The copy began:

 “As everyone piles into native advertising, hoping that making ads resemble editorial will better engage consumers, critics argue that the risk of misleading is only going to grow. So what are marketers' and media companies' obligations as far as the government is concerned?”

Then it went on to sell you on the idea of buying its $99 report that would begin to give those answers.

Now that’s not native advertising in my book. But I guess the point might be: Who’s writing the book on native advertising?

“During the workshop, the FTC will explore the ways paid messages are integrated and presented as content and how ads can be effectively differentiated from regular content via labels and other visual cues,” Adweek reported. “It will also look at what the research shows about how consumers notice and understand paid content that has been presented as news or entertainment, or integrated into editorial.”

But ultimately, it’s a pretty tricky business. Years ago, the FTC went after toy manufacturers attempting to require them to produce commercials that showed toys in realistic situations. A suburban backyard shouldn’t be made to look like the surface of the moon which is the much preferred way for a toymaker to sell a spaceship. That kind of thing. Somebody peddled a horse, called “Nugget” that was as cute as could be, standing there in the commercial. But in reality, unless somebody was holding Nugget, he fell right over. That kind of deceptive product advertising stopped, by consent decree or otherwise.

But separating, or finding that line, between a commercial and native advertising might prove to be a lot more difficult. The amazing thing is that most of the viewing public doesn’t know native advertising exists so it can’t define it either—it’s not like native advertising much resembles an infomercial, not really.

 And what’s clear to an advertiser—ostensibly—may not be so clear to a consumer. Ocean Spray once produced a commercial that advertised the drink was full of “food energy.” That sounds good, except, the FTC pointed out, not many consumers would know what Ocean Spray calls food energy most of us call “calories.”  Just a misunderstanding, I guess. Maybe the natives should be getting restless.

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