Two native advertisement assessments  leave no doubt about need for labeling

By Howard Rauch, editor-in-chief

Reston, Va. — B2B editorial and sales teams often wrestle with how sponsored content should be labeled. With the blending of native advertising and regular editorial content, a consensus already exists that format distinctions are required.

In fact, anyone wishing for a stronger handle on a variety of native advertising considerations should study two reports:

  1. A sponsored content overview recently posted by the American Press Institute.
  2. The Native Advertising Playbook, the result of deliberations by an Interactive Advertising Bureau task force.

Both reports agree that native advertising is an important wave of the future. Almost all the documentation is based on input from consumer media executives. But the instructive value clearly applies to B2B concerns.

“Our paper doesn’t deal directly with specific situations in B2B native advertising,” API program coordinator Kevin Loker told Ethics News Updates during an email exchange. “The general best practice, however, would be to properly label. I can’t make a blanket position statement for API, but I personally think that disclosure would be the ethical thing to do.”

The results of an API Thought Leader Summit were reported by authors Jeff Sonderman and Millie Tran. “The resounding consensus we heard from summit participants,” writes the duo, “was that upholding the publisher’s own brand and integrity, and thereby its readers’ trust, is an important principle.”

The report chapter — “Managing risks, maintaining standards and ethics in sponsored content” — described how The Atlantic magazine “established new standards and processes from lessons learned by running a much-criticized native ad from the Church of Scientology.”

The publication’s new advertising guidelines state: “The Atlantic will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.”

A further reflection of a lesson learned the hard way is this notice: “The Atlantic may reject or remove any Sponsor Content at any time that contains false, deceptive, potentially misleading, or illegal content; is inconsistent with or may tend to bring disparagement, harm to reputation, or other damage to The Atlantic’s brand.”

API’s report also points to the need to separate “sponsored content teams” from journalism teams. Many consumer magazines do have staffs assigned to preparing articles that advertisers can sponsor but cannot exert control over the material. Typical B2B practice is to coordinate more closely on content with advertisers, allowing the latter right of review at various points during the creation stage. Separate teams are not always easy to fund, observes API, “because a publisher’s resources may be limited.”

In fact, ASBPE’s Guide to Preferred Journalism Practices insists on separate teams as follows: “A publication’s editorial staff should not write, edit, design or lay out special advertising sections or supplements. This role should be handled by a freelancer hired by the sales staff or publisher or a separate non-editorial department.”

The section covering sponsored content was revised by ethics committee members to reflect the role editors could play in project development: “A senior-level editor may work with sales personnel to ensure that no conflict exists between the advertiser-sponsored content and editorial content. Thus, the editor may suggest topics for the sponsor, but the publisher or the sales staff should be the ones to communicate these suggestions to the sponsor.”

(Editor’s note: API’s report devoted ample space to the American Society of Magazine Editors current guidelines pertaining to “marketer-provided content and native advertising.” ENU provides detailed guideline coverage elsewhere in this issue.)

IAB Addresses Disclosure Principles

In another report, The Interactive Advertising Bureau includes a section devoted to disclosure principles. “Regardless of the native advertising unit type,” the report states, “the IAB advocates that, for paid native ad units,” clarity and prominence of the disclosure is paramount.”

The disclosure must “use language that conveys that the advertising has been paid for, thus making it an advertising unit, even if that unit does not contain traditional promotional advertising messages. Further, the disclosure must “be large and visible enough for a consumer to notice it in the context of a given page and/or relative to the device that the ad is being viewed on.”

Adds IAB, “regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is paid advertising vs. what is publisher editorial content.”

A separate note in the IAB report Appendix section addresses disclosure issues as follows:

“In addition to language, shading, or other visual cues associated with native ads, many publishers also include additional disclosure cues such as a separate roll-over link using language such as ‘What’s this’ to provide the consumer with additional information on the origin of the content in the ad. The language typically makes it clear that the ad content did not come from the publisher’s editorial staff and may also include a statement such as ‘The content may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial staff.’

“As native advertising continues to gain momentum, many publishers are revising their own advertising guidelines to make it clear to advertisers and third party suppliers that all paid native ads need to be disclosed as such consistent with their guidelines.”

The two reports covered in this article suggest that consumer media publishers may not tolerate lack of disclosure.  On the other hand, the specific concern that native ads should not imitate conventional editorial content’s graphic format is aptly covered by an advisory in ASBPE’s ethics code:

“Purely textual advertising, such as customer-provided content known as native advertising, should not be presented as editorial. The fonts and layout used should be distinct enough to set it apart. The content should be labeled as advertising.”