Digital publisher BuzzFeed recently posted a shopping guide to skincare that recommended 32 products, including a St. Ives face cream.
The shopping guide's copy for the cream -- which included the statement that "collagen and elastin proteins in this formula help reduce the appearance of fine lines" -- drew the attention of the industry watchdog National Advertising Division, a unit of the Better Business Bureau.
The NAD asked BuzzFeed to substantiate its statements about the moisturizer's touted benefits. The shopping guide listed a total of 32 products, and also contained affiliate links -- meaning that BuzzFeed garnered revenue when readers clicked on links in the guides and then made purchases.
BuzzFeed countered that the NAD lacks jurisdiction on the grounds that the shopping guide is an editorial product, not advertising. This week, the NAD said it agreed with BuzzFeed that the shopping guide was editorial -- which means that BuzzFeed has the free speech right to recommend or criticize products.
"The product at issue was chosen for its recommendation list by editorial staff without the input of business staff regarding the potential for affiliate link revenue," the NAD writes. "The retailer or brand did not have any say in whether the product was recommended or what was said about it."
The NAD adds that the brands listed in the shopping guide weren't allowed to revise BuzzFeed's content, and that affiliate links were only added after the guide was completed.
The decision appears to mark the first time the NAD has addressed whether the presence of affiliate links can transform editorial content into advertising, according to Terri Seligman, an advertising lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz.
In its decision, the NAD drew a distinction between material published with the motive of attracting readers and selling products. The group said that if a publisher's main economic motivation was to draw readers, the content wasn't advertising; if the primary purpose was to hawk merchandise, the content might be considered advertising.
Seligman says the decision offers "important guidance" regarding the line between editorial and advertising. "If you’re a publisher and want to ensure that your editorial content is always considered as such, even if monetized with affiliate links, or if you’re a brand and want to ensure that the editorial content you’re sponsoring or advertising against is not treated as your advertising, especially if you're providing affiliate revenue to a publisher, make sure to implement policies and practices that demonstrate and support the traditional separation of 'church and state,'" she writes.