The blurring boundaries between native ads and editorial

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Today, everyone wants to pretend that ads are not ads. So-called “native advertising” is one of the most disingenuous examples.

Recently, I searched Google for a topic relating to marketing software. Here was part of a newly designed search engine results page (SERP) that appeared:

The Google Ads listing at the top and the first organic result at the bottom were virtually identical except for small icons in the top-left corners. (See my tweet at the time for some interesting comments in the replies.) The icons seemed to be whatever favicons were used by the listed websites.

With both Google’s change and native advertising in general, we are seeing a blurring of the boundaries today between what I will oversimplify by calling “ads” and “editorial”. Little good will come from this – for marketers or consumers.

The beginnings of native advertising

The online advertising world has many problems. Ad fraud. Ad blocking. Ad tech middlemen that steal money. Metrics that are unaudited and often fake. Banner blindness. Annoying pop-ups. The dumbing down of everything into “content”. Autoplay video and audio. Personal data collection. Personal tracking. Fraudulent influencers. Unnecessary personalisation.

For some of those cases, native advertising has been promoted as a solution. According to the Copenhagen-based Native Advertising Institute (NAI), the practice is using “paid advertising where the ad matches the form, feel and function of the content of the media on which it appears”. In other words, it is an advertorial.

“Native advertising” is yet another example of a cliched bad practice today: take an existing marcom tactic such as advertorials, invent a new word for it and claim that some major change has occurred. (NAI did not respond to a request for comment for this column.) But that does not mean the practice never has any value.

“Native advertising works as a solution to audience fatigue for banner/programmatic advertising, and [audiences] are surprisingly tolerant of it,” Alex Connock, a management practice fellow in marketing at Oxford University’s Said Business School, told me. “At Oxford, I did a study at the Reuters Institute of Journalism, co-authored with Sian Kevill, in which we tested the audience’s tolerance for branding in content, in the UK, US and Hong Kong.

“We constructed a number of pitches for TV shows which were open to brand integration (or native advertising) and then ramped up the level of branding in the shows to test at what point the audience would stop viewing. We found a remarkably high tolerance for branding in content. Well over 80% of people would keep watching a computer show even if they knew it had been funded by an electronics company, and 82% in the UK would watch a beauty show funded by a cosmetics brand. In a factual show about cars, 61% of people in the UK (and 84% of people in Hong Kong) would still be watching the show even when a car manufacturer was given final editorial say over the show.”

Becky Skiles, a partner at Deloitte Digital, told me that native advertising can be effective if it is “carefully curated” and adds value for consumers rather than giving “a bunch of irrelevant, badly targeted clickbait” that will make people “lose faith in both the advertiser and the platform".

“This is an interesting situation where both the platform and the advertiser have to ensure that they are aligned in their audiences," she added. "If there is some sharing of targeted, useful, purposeful, curated content it can be a win-win. But if you get this wrong, it’s a race to a zero-sum game.”

What the US FTC says

But just because native advertising can be effective does not mean it is always ethical.

“With the emergence of digital media and changes in the way publishers monetise content, online advertising known as ‘native advertising’ or ‘sponsored content,’ which is often indistinguishable from news, feature articles, product reviews, editorial, entertainment, and other regular content, has become more prevalent,” a policy statement from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated in 2015.

“In digital media, a publisher, or an authorised third party, can easily and inexpensively format an ad so it matches the style and layout of the content into which it is integrated in ways not previously available in traditional media. The effect is to mask the signals consumers customarily have relied upon to recognise an advertising or promotional message.

“Regardless of the medium in which an advertising or promotional message is disseminated, deception occurs when consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances are misled about its nature or source, and such misleading impression is likely to affect their decisions or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertising.”

Specifically, the policy statement refers to deceptive ad formats such as ads appearing in a news format or that otherwise misrepresent their sources or natures.

“The FTC’s policy applies time-tested truth-in-advertising principles to modern media,” Jessica Rich, then-director of the commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement at the time. “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 FTC’s guide to compliant native advertising mandates that disclosures should be in clear and unambiguous language, as close as possible to the native ads to which they relate, in a font and color that’s easy to read and in a shade that stands out against the background. In addition, video disclosures must be on the screen long enough to be noticed, read and understood. Audio disclosures must be read at a cadence that is easy for consumers to follow and in words consumers will understand.

The FTC told me that the commission does not comment on any practices of specific companies or individuals. However, a 2017 staff report told several search engines that they should modify their SERPs to be compliant with its guidelines. In the FTC’s example for Google, the word “ad” or “ads” appears much more prominently, and the ads are separated from organic results by either a box or different background colour.

Google Ads’ recent changes seemingly violate the FTC’s guidelines by now giving organic and paid results essentially the same design. Google did not respond to a request for comment for this column. But Google’s Search Liaison Twitter account posted a statement two days after my earlier tweet.

"We're dedicated to improving the desktop experience for Search, and as part of our efforts we rolled out a new design last week, mirroring the design that we've had for many months on mobile,” the company stated. "The design has been well received by users on mobile screens, as it helps people more quickly see where information is coming from and they can see a prominent bolded ad label at the top.

"Web publishers have also told us they like having their brand iconography on the search results page. While early tests for desktop were positive, we are always incorporating feedback from our users. We are experimenting with a change to the current desktop favicon, and will continue to iterate on the design over time."

The design history of Google Ads

In 2011, Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz noted that Google had designs of purple and then yellow for the backgrounds of ads to separate them from organic results.

I can only imagine how many non-marketers do not understand what they see in the SERPs now and click on ads by mistake. And that will hurt Google in the long term.

Google defeated the earliest search engines founded in the 1990s for one simple reason: the company had a superior product. It was the best at providing the most desired results for whatever people were searching.

Today, however, Google might lose that notability in exchange for notoriety. If people are confused by the SERPs or see too many ads or dislike the company’s data collection practices, they might start to use other search engines. After all, DuckDuckGo has always positioned itself as an anti-Google that does not do such things.

“As a consumer, it is frustrating to users to have to do extra work in order to differentiate between paid and organic search results,” Eric Schmitt, senior director analyst at the Gartner for Marketers practice, told me. “As a marketer, the extra clicks this tactic generates may offer some benefit, but likely not enough to offset the overall cost and frustration of paying monopolistic search advertising rates.”

News outlets and social media also have native problems

The major social media networks barely distinguish between editorial and ads as well. The only difference, for example, between ads and posts in LinkedIn and Twitter’s home page feeds is the tiny addition of the word “promoted”.

During the “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” crazes of the 2010s, companies became obsessed with so-called user-generated content (UGC). Basically, UGC is getting people to write stuff for your website for free that you can spread on social media or get found in Google search results for the website clicks.

Many news outlets also adopted the practice – which largely became only another form of deceptive native advertising. Publications would create a “contributors” section separate from the official opinion page and let almost anyone immediately upload essays and articles with little or no editorial oversight. (Editors are expensive.) To this day, I think I still have accounts at The Next Web and the Times of Israel.

But as I told Event Industry News last week in a podcast recording from Copenhagen before a speaking event there, people will rarely take the time to speak at an event or write material for a website without getting paid or receiving some other self-serving benefit.

That is the reason UGC became little more than promotion through another form of native advertising. After all, contributor sections almost exactly resemble the rest of a media outlet’s website and sometimes have few disclosures. And marketers have used UGC sections to promote clients unethically.

And that is what happens when the line between ads and editorial becomes too blurred. Most contributed UGC material is meant to promote one thing or another while giving it the credibility of “appearing” in that publication. (Note that I do have other recommendations for news publications that want to be successful today.)

“Media outlets have to be very careful about hosting unmonitored content and need to think about the potential damage to their reputation,” Matt Dailey, chief performance officer at Havas Media Group, told me.

“It may be that a larger number of outlets are trying to play the same card as the tech giants such as Google and Facebook, who have managed to separate themselves (in the regulators’ minds at least) from responsibility for the content that appears on many of their platforms, saying that they are merely the platform and not the owner or endorser of that content.”

Don’t go native

It is not just that a lot of native advertising is deceptive and probably in violation of FTC guidelines. Frankly, I do not understand why any advertiser would want his or her ads to hide within the media in which they appear.

The first rule of advertising is that ads must stand out. They must get noticed and remembered. If that fails, then nothing else matters. To this day, I still recall this wonderful BBH ad from 1982.

In a world where everyone wants to optimise everything to be like everyone else, the best results still come from differentiation. But native advertising wants to hide. If you do not want people to know that they are seeing an ad, then it is probably not a very good one.

Today, Google personalises search results for each person’s individual query based on factors including search history, language and geography. As a result, what I see is not necessarily what others will see. But while I was finalising this column, I searched Google again for “marketing software” and still saw the same type of design.

Online advertising indeed has many problems. But if you want to fix the industry, the answer is not to go native. Start by removing the personal data collection and individual tracking and targeting instead.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global keynote marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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