Unholy And Undone

Well, time to say goodbye to the nativity scene.

And I don’t mean dismantling the front-yard crèche. It took a while, but just two days before Christmas, the Federal Trade Commission finally published guidelines that disqualify most native advertising as it is practiced today. The action will be devastating to advertisers, agencies and mainly publishers, but it cannot be surprising to anyone.  

This was like the fall of Saigon or the Eagles-Redskins game: humiliating, chaotic and completely inevitable. 

Also very simple. The Four Wise Women of the commission found no fault whatsoever with advertisers offering "content" within the confines of independent media. All they ask is that the native advertising be clearly identified as advertising. Ha ha. Just that -- sort of like asking snipers to wear fluorescent orange. 



The 11-page set of guidelines will be ruinous to the whole sordid category, because the guidelines obliterate the Big Lie that the nativists have propounded for five years: that they believe in disclosure. They do not. What they believe in is paying lip service to disclosure while camouflaging marketing messages as editorial in order to deceive consumers. The FTC has now specified how disclosure actually takes place:

Terms likely to be understood include "Ad," "Advertisement," "Paid Advertisement," "Sponsored Advertising Content," or some variation thereof. Advertisers should not use terms such as "Promoted" or "Promoted Stories," which in this context are at best ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site. 

Likewise too closely mimicking surrounding fonts, layout, headline design and so forth. Likewise -- hellooooo Taboola -- baiting users to click their way into a rabbit hole of commercial sleaze.

For those who have been following the native frenzy, the FTC had another little stocking stuffer: an explicit warning not just to marketers but to their confederates, enablers and apologists:

The FTC’s Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements doesn’t apply just to advertisers. In appropriate circumstances, the FTC has taken action against other parties who helped create deceptive advertising content -- for example, ad agencies and operators of affiliate advertising networks. Everyone who participates directly or indirectly in creating or presenting native ads should make sure that ads don’t mislead consumers about their commercial nature. Marketers who use native advertising have a particular interest in ensuring that anyone participating in the promotion of their products is familiar with the basic-truth-in-advertising principle that an ad should be identifiable as an ad to consumers.

Needless to say, with $4.3 billion at stake, the affected parties immediately began to whine about the heavy hand of regulation.

“As soon as you start to standardize things and put guidelines around things, you limit the level of creativity and innovation that is able to occur,” Mark Howard, Forbes Media’s chief revenue officer, told The New York Times. “If you put out stringent guidelines, are you going to put people back in the box?”

Sweet Jesus, I hope so -- although Howard was incorrect on the facts. Creativity (and since when does organized deception count as “creative?”) is not stifled by stringent parameters but rather stimulated. As French philosopher Montaigne observed, breath “forced through the narrow passage of a trumpet” comes out as music. But never mind that. The point is, three cheers for the Federal Trade Commission for drawing a line in the sand.

Here, however, a disclaimer: Remember how in the run-up to the Iraq war, when Dick Cheney’s people leaked bogus “intelligence” to The New York Times about aluminum tubes supposedly used in uranium centrifuges for an atomic weapon? Remember how reporter Judith Miller rushed her big scoop into print, unaware that the Bush administration had been told by real intelligence analysts that the tubes were designed for no such thing? And remember how, when the story broke, Cheney and his fellow administration fanned out on the Sunday TV talk shows to talk about the Times story, citing it as independent verification of the baseless White House claims?

How slimy can you get? Also, that’s approximately what I’ve been doing for the past 650 words.

Two years ago, when the commission held a workshop on native advertising to inform its handling of the phenomenon under its truth-in-advertising portfolio, I actually was a presenter. My audience, as I mentioned at the time, wasn’t the commissioners or the staff, but rather anybody else who would listen to common sense. My argument -- then as now -- is not just that native was transparently nontransparent, but that it would quickly erode audience trust to the detriment of the very parties who temporarily fed at its trough -- trust, after all, being the goose that lays the golden egg. And trust, I declared, was being sold off one slice at a time.

“Readers do not click on ads,” I observed. “They do click on native ads. Ergo, they don’t realize native ads are ads.”

“Native Advertising it is not merely a deception,” I argued. “With publishers and agencies it is a conspiracy of deception. A hustle. A racket. A grift.”

“Doesn’t the reader,” I posed rhetorically, “have the right to know whose interests are served by the 'content'?"

Or as the FTC’s Director of Consumer Enforcement, Jessica L. Rich, offered in a statement: "People browsing the Web, using social media, or watching videos have a right to know if they’re seeing editorial content or an ad." The woman is a genius. A genius, I tell you.

Now, the promulgation of guidelines did not come with an accompanying enforcement action, and perhaps the conspirators will risk business as usual until the hammer comes down on somebody. But maybe not. The lawyers can’t force the revenue stewards to be on the right side of ethics. But they suddenly have to worry about keeping everybody on the right side of the law.

19 comments about "Unholy And Undone".
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  1. Jim Gilmartin from Coming of Age, December 28, 2015 at 10:59 a.m.

    Well said! Native advertising is hucksterism in its lowest form. 

  2. Mark Silber from, December 28, 2015 at 11:48 a.m.

    An oddly timed yet huge decision by the FTC. I happen to be a fan of native but NOT of deception. Naively, perhaps, I believe native makes compelling content possible. If it turns out no one will ever click or otherwise engage with anything labeled ad then we are back to square one and, honestly, we've tried all the other nearby squares already so I dunno where we go next.

  3. Barry Schwartz from Schwartz PR Associates, Inc., December 28, 2015 at 11:53 a.m.

    In keeping with your Christmas theme, we now give thanks to the wise men who made that decision.  Just one letter separates "native" from "naive"...and those native proponents assumed we were naive enough to accept their bullbleep as gospel. Throughout, this never passed the smell test, akin to those exotic mortgage creations that kicked off the recession.  Happily, the FTC came to its senses before any real damage was done.

    Barry Schwartz from Schwartz Public Relations Associates

  4. Tom Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, December 28, 2015 at 12:11 p.m.

    Man, this piece is more than a home run, it's a freakin' GRAND SLAM. Not only does it reiterate all the great points about why native advertising is one of those weasel-word terms like "collateral damage" that needs to be reigned in and rejected, we get a welcome reminder of how the lapdog, scoop-focused corporate news media helped duplicitously march us into a disasterous, debilitating war (right as they're trying to DO IT AGAIN, btw).

    Maybe the Force really IS awakening, and the blows agains the Empire are going to begin taking more and more traction. In any case Bob Garfield > Dick Cheney, duh. Let's get 2016 started, already -- it's going to be a Big Year.  

  5. Andrew Hunt from Addroid, December 28, 2015 at 2:27 p.m.

    Thanks Bob, and well put.  Display advertising has been thrown under the bus in favor of native for the past few years, but it seems the time has come for native to play by the rules.  Maybe this news will finally drive home the point to publishers that there is no substitute for good content and a balanced user experience in order to make ad space perform.  And for brands that there is no loophole to get away from investing in good ad creative and tech.

  6. Margaret Duffy from Duffy Consulting, December 28, 2015 at 3:48 p.m.

    Oh, really, Bob.  Calm down.  Take a Valium.  Drink a martini.  People keep acting as if Native Advertising is something new and spectacularly evil (it's not).  It used to be called advertorials.  And please stop acting as if "editorial" content is some unsullied example of the "truth."  What do you think a sports page is if not free advertising for highly lucrative sports franchises?  Have you heard of publicity and news releases?  When the Chamber of Commerce or the Food Bank gets coverage is it "objective?"  When the Living sections of news publications feature certain cooks or celebrities, is that also native advertising?  If McDonald's sponsors the Little League team should the uniforms come with a warning?  

  7. Robert Cleary from RingCentral, December 28, 2015 at 4:01 p.m.

    About time! When does this take effect? What will the penalties be for the likes of Forbes and other "creative deceptors"?

  8. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, December 28, 2015 at 4:09 p.m.

    To Margaret Duffy: Not one comparison you made is apt -- not even advertorial, which required labeling and differentiating font treatment.
    As for the others...well, don't mix Valium and martinis. It causes foggy thinking.

  9. Margaret Duffy from Duffy Consulting replied, December 28, 2015 at 4:30 p.m.

    Well, I have to disagree--I think my comparisons are entirely apt, though I do agree that you shouldn't mix Valium and martinis--select one or the other.  However, you still haven't addressed the issues of earned media or what you consider responsible native content.  Is the NYT approach OK?  Is Forbes BrandVoice clear enough for you?  Should VNRs be banned?  How does a consumer discern whose interestes are served in editorial content?  You've written a fun article on a complex subject--but haven't addressed the complexity.  Maybe it's a problem with the format of MediaPost...

  10. Andrew Hunt from Addroid replied, December 28, 2015 at 5:04 p.m.

    This seems pretty cut-and-dry to me.  If someone pays for online real estate, then that’s an ad and the FTC says it should be labeled as such.  If an editorial staff chooses to cover a story, then they live with that choice and the audience decides whether to stay or go.  None of this precludes well designed contextual advertising that is relevant to a particular reader (and effective).

  11. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, December 28, 2015 at 5:30 p.m.

    How is this for insidious? I found this statement at the bottom of what appeared to be editorial content on Business Insider: Disclosure: This post is brought to you by Business Insider's Insider Picks team. We aim to highlight products and services you might find interesting, and if you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partners, including Amazon. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions. We operate independently from our advertising sales team. We welcome your feedback. Have something you think we should know about? Email us at


  12. William Mount from The Crafton Group, December 28, 2015 at 5:44 p.m.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Bob. My middle-aged creative guy* side has laid a thorough beat-down on my Libertarian side. I’ll admit it, I’m pleased about the FTC’s new guidelines. Maybe now we can get get back to persuading people to buy our clients’ stuff by being charming, relevant and, dare I say it, creative, instead of just sneaky. I’ll be pleased to don that fluorescent orange vest.

    * AKA Old Ad Fart

  13. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 28, 2015 at 9:03 p.m.

    When it's your column, you get to choose Cheney's story to fit your political bias. I might have chosen the whopper Hillary told the families of Benghazi victims, that the attacks on 9/11/12 were caused by a YouTube video.

  14. Mark Paul from Mark Paul, December 28, 2015 at 10:53 p.m.

    To Douglas Ferguson: You might indeed have chosen Benghazi, although Trey Gowdy (R-SC) led a congressional committee that spent millions only to uncover...Nothing. And, of course, you also don't offer any kind of narrative thread concerning native advertising — which is how the Cheney gambit came up — to make relevant a reference to Benghazi.


  15. Andrew Susman from New Value Associates, December 28, 2015 at 11:15 p.m.

    Under the Articles of War, “it is unlawful for a warship to go into action without first showing her true colors.” A 2015 ANA study,  shows that advertisers -- perhaps even more than publishers -- are well aware that “native advertising needs clear disclosure that it is, indeed, advertising.”  In fact, advertisers feel “disclosure/transparency is the single biggest issue about native advertising.”  Bob Liodice, President and CEO of the ANA, made this point clear, noting: “Marketers have a responsibility to be transparent to maintain trust, and they must play a lead role in working with publishers to ensure proper disclosure.”  It must now be clear to the supply chain that the public trust is not an inexhaustible bin of lollipops.

    Thank you, Bob for standing up for simple American and human values like decency, reliability and fair play.  

  16. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, December 29, 2015 at 1:05 p.m.

    Well done, Bob.  I agreed with your comments two years ago and I agree now.  The reality is being decietful is never the best strategy in the long run.  

  17. Bob Garfield from MediaPost replied, December 29, 2015 at 8:06 p.m.

    oh, mercy you miss the point. I am pulling a cheney by commenting favorably on events i (possibly) influenced.

    by the way, even if there were actual evidence of hillary lying -- versus being wrong for 24 hours about a chaotic but isolated violent event -- that isn't even in the same realm of lying to the world to invent a war that killed hundreds of thousands of human beings, among them thousands of Americans, at a cost of $1 trillion, and left us with ISIS.

  18. Mani Gandham from Instinctive, December 31, 2015 at 1:58 p.m.

    Native is just a format. I think we need to make that clear. Done accurately, it's supposed to match the look, feel and behavior of surrounding content to primarily be nonintrusive and integrate seamlessly. We’ve seen how successful this can be with Google’s search ads. It’s also best used with actual sponsored content rather than crummy landing pages but that’s a much deeper topic.

    However, this is all predicated on trust and still having proper disclaimers. That’s the real issue here. Not the format but the deception that many of the so-called native providers have indulged in with tiny gray font saying fancy things like “around the web” and “brand publisher” which is designed to do nothing but mislead. Not to mention all the shameless promotions of outright scams from unscrupulous advertisers as long as their check clears.

    This is where we need standards and these FTC guidelines are a great and much needed first step. I’m looking forward to seeing some enforcement so that we can finally start the cleanup process and regain some trust with consumers. 

  19. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston replied, January 9, 2016 at 7:35 p.m.

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