Time For Action -- Native Is Too Good To Let The Rogues Go Unpunished

Anyone taken a kid to a sweet shop recently? Well you can imagine what happens if you do the equivalent and let the digital marketing industry loose on the content and native advertising opportunity that the IAB UK reveals is approaching a point where it will account for a quarter of online display advertising.

The answer came today from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) as it criticised Starcom Mediavest Group and native specialist TAN Media with doing exactly what they both know they shouldn't be doing. There cannot be a media professional alive who doesn't know the requirements of native. It has to be clearly labelled as a "sponsored feature" or "promotional feature" preferably in a different font or with a different shade of background to differentiate it from the editorial it is rubbing shoulders with. That a group as well known as Starcom can fall foul of facilitating a blatant breach of the rules would be surprising to many. It isn't for anyone who knows mad men. Starcom is the biggest name here, but the latest CMA action has seen them write to 20 marketing businesses and 33 online publishers and bloggers. 

Advertorial has long been a part of journalism, and it can work very well when it is open and honest. Brands get to either be part of a conversation they want to be associated with or they get to put over their opinion on an issue that rarely gets asked for. They pay for the privilege, but as long as it's openly acknowledged, that is fine. The issue usually is that the publishers are desperate for money now that print revenues have fallen through the floor. Brands know this and will often push their luck, expecting blatant sales messages to totally ruin an otherwise good article -- or even worse, for it to be left assumed that they are the sponsor because they are quoted, rather than following the disclosure rules and labelling an article.

The publishers are desperate for revenue and the brands don't care too much about the publisher's reputation, although I'd point out they should realise they do their own reputation no good by treating the public as stupid enough not to feel hoodwinked by blatant advertorial disguised as editorial. The vast majority of publishers and brands do the right thing, but as always, there is a rogue element.

This brings us to the main point -- readers outside the UK might be surprised to learn that the punishment for breaking marketing's very clear rules and almost certainly breaking the law at the same time is about as tough as it gets. You guessed it -- the guilty parties have been sent a letter. That's right. They've coined it in by breaking the rules, but they have had to accept the harsh punishment of a piece of paper warning them they may have been naughty. UK readers will not find this odd, after all we punish our naughtiest politicians who have robbed from the state coffers not just by writing a letter but reading their name out in the Houses of Parliament. How terrifying a punishment that must be. A letter and your name read out.

Native advertising is too huge an opportunity to muck up -- and so anyone with half a brain will agree it really is time for us to become a bit more American and raise some big fines, and show the market that it simply is not acceptable to con readers any more, even if it has been lucrative in the short term.

When abuse is rife and a huge name like Starcom is in the frame, the party could be over for everyone unless a letter does more than tick off the transgressor -- but rather invites them to explain their actions to a judge and then write a very large cheque. It's surely the only way, now, isn't it?

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