By Howard Rauch

Last month saw some dubious recognition heaped upon “native advertising.” First a New York Times article appearing in the Business Day section bore this headline: “Storytelling Ads May be Journalism’s New Peril.” And before the week ended, the Federal Trade Commission announced a December 4 workshop intent on taking a closer look at the practice NYT described as the “new rage” in marketing circles.

The NYT column written by David Carr provided a more precise definition than past tries to define this ethical beast. According to Carr, the “new peril” is “advertising wearing the uniform of journalism, mimicking the storytelling aesthetic of the host site.”

Carr observed that “publishers might build a revenue ledge through innovation of this advertising format, but the confusion that makes it work often diminishes the host publication’s credibility.”

However the practice is identified, “it’s for sure ads in digital media are starting to look a lot like the surrounding content,” noted FTC attorney Lesley Fair when announcing the workshop. Among the questions that session will address:

• What is the origin and purpose of the wall between regular content and advertising? What challenges do publishers face in maintaining that wall in digital media, including mobile?

• In what ways are paid messages integrated into—or presented as—regular content? Does it look different within mobile apps or on smart phones?

• What business models support the moderation and display of native or integrated ads?

“How can ads effectively be differentiated from regular content? Are there labels or visual cues that would work? What about when paid messages are aggregated—for example, in search results—or retransmitted through social media?

The question of labeling always has been addressed in ASBPE’S ethics code. The revised version just posted on our Web site advises that “a print advertisement should not appear next to related editorial, to avoid the appearance of partiality or advertiser involvement.”

And later on, the code notes that “all advertising should have a design different from editorial matter, at least in typeface and layout. Advertisements that may be confused for editorial content should be clearly labeled at the top with the word ‘advertising,’ ‘advertisement,’ ‘sponsored by’ or similar designation, but never the word ‘advertorial’ or similarly confusing terminology.”

In view of the preceding passage, you can appreciate problems arising if publishers are willing to waive graphics policy and, as the NYT article puts it, allow advertising to have “the familiar headline, art and text configuration of an editorial work.”

To date, the most visible native advertising ethical uproars have involved consumer publication activity. But what concessions might B2B publishers be willing to make to win more revenue? And are they appropriately concerned now about what to do?

What’s happening at your company in terms of policy adjustments? Equally important, what’s your opinion about the issue of imminent confusion when readers are less likely to be able to distinguish between advertising and editorial content?

Photo of Howard Rauch
Howard Rauch

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., a consultancy focusing on B2B magazines. Rauch is the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 

This post first appeared in Howard’s LinkedIn group.