The Advertising Standards Authority has banned a ‘recommended links’ promotion for failing to make clear that linked-to articles were paid for by advertisers.
The ruling against content distribution business Outbrain has added fresh fuel to the debate on native advertising content and its relationship with editorial.
The ASA investigation was prompted by a complaint against an un-named newspaper which ran a ‘You may also like these’ bar on pages which linked to advertiser websites. The ASA ruled that the links were not clearly marked as advertising content and banned Outbrain from using the format.
Outbrain argued that the content “was not advertising in the traditional sense” and said they were better described as “’promoted content’ or ‘promoted stories’”.
However, the ASA concluded that the links were misleading.
“We considered consumers would not necessarily realise that the various different ‘recommendations’ included formed part of the same ‘panel’ and that they might not notice the ‘Recommended by’ text, which appeared in the bottom corner,” the ASA said.
“We also considered consumers might not realise that the logo included a link to additional information. Nevertheless, we noted that marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such and considered the test ‘You may also like these’ and ‘Recommended by’, as well as the information provided in the pop up and in the link below the ad, was not sufficient to ensure it was obvious to consumers that the ad was a marketing communication.
“Because the ad was not obviously identifiable as marketing communication, we concluded that it was misleading. The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Outbrain to ensure future advertising placed by them was obviously identifiable as such.”
Francis Turner, managing director of native advertising business Adyoulike, which is part of the Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) native working group, said the ASA’s view came as “no surprise”.
“The ASA ruling against Outbrain’s labelling of their ads is no surprise as we have been aware of the ASA’s stance for some time. The ruling was primarily against terms such as ‘more from the web’ and ‘you may also like’, which do not by themselves denote that they are advertising placements.
“In our opinion, full disclosure leads to a better consumer and publisher experience. Our findings suggest that the native content we create and distribute for our brand partners is engaging, informative and likely to boost brand uplift as a result. It’s not about tricking website visitors to click on some content that they didn’t know was an ad. Brands should want people to know that it’s their content.”
Charles Lloyd, head of advertising group (UK) at law firm Taylor Wessing, added that the decision highlighted tension between advertisers and the regulator over the labelling of native advertising.
"Advertisers clearly do not want to flag up such content as 'contextually targeted' advertising even if publishers could be persuaded to, so there is a tension with the regulator who has jurisdiction and a wide discretion here to decide its 'misleading ' and an 'unidentified marketing communication' in breach of the CAP Code to not label this content by words such as 'sponsored' or 'promoted' despite Outbrain’s claim that it followed industry practice," he said.
"This outcome is hardly surprising given that Outbrain merely used the text ' you may also like these' and 'recommended by' next to their logo on the third party websites. Clearly the regulator is looking for a much clearer label for 'native advertising' like this even if it does have a negative effect on this kind of copy."
Responding to the ruling, a spokesperson for Outbrain said the company was working with regulators, publishers and consumer groups to establish clearer industry guidelines.
"Outbrain has always worked within best practice guidelines on this issue - not just in the UK, but in every territory it works in," the company said. "Content discovery is still a relative newcomer when compared to traditional web advertising, so the situation is fluid and there is still a great deal of discussion to be had about labelling and disclosure. We feel that we lead the market in terms of clear labelling and providing quality content that will be of genuine interest to consumers.
"We’re continuing to work with regulators, publishers and consumer groups on a framework that satisfies all parties."
Various industry organisations are currently looking at creating clearer guidelines on native advertising to address concerns about the blurring relationship between editorial and advertising.
CAP guidance released last year advised publishers to ensure that content “contextually embedded” should be clearly signposted, adding: “We would advise against using the argument that a consumer can just ‘click back’ to where they started from if they discover the landing page is advertorial. Past ASA action shows that if the initial ad is misleading, explaining it on the landing page may not be sufficient.”
In April, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) released a set of “base line” definitions for marketers to help define the varying forms of content marketing and clarify terminology in the rapidly expanding market.
Native advertising has been embraced by marketers and publishers alike. In a report last year The Huffington Post suggested it could help publishers find a financial model capable of sustaining online journalism. Publishers and brands such as Buzzfeed, Trinity Mirror, Bauer Media and the Guardian have all embraced the new wave of content marketing.