They arrive every few days—e-mail spams from sleazy “expert writers” offering to create TeleRead posts for free. Of course, there’s a catch. The posts will contain links to the companies paying these hacks. Never mind that this is deceptive advertising in effect. We’re talking about editorial chameleons: both the people and the ads.
Nowadays I don’t reply or I remind the writers that they’ve got things backwards. Their clients first need to negotiate a price with me for running this “sponsored content,” and when it does appear in the TeleRead blog, we’ll label it clearly, assuming we decide to run it at all.
One such writer-businessperson did give me a name-your-price offer, but then insisted that we not identify the sponsor. Another claimed to be acting of behalf of Barnes & Noble. The real B&N denied the connection, and I’ll believe the company in this case—making me wonder just who the actual sponsor would have been. The waters would have been muddy in the worst way.
By contrast, the new TeleRead site will run the following text message in a rectangle at the tops of sponsored items, in line with our previously announced policy: “Opinions in this article are the sponsor’s. They are not necessarily TeleRead’s, and vice versa.” In addition, we’ll use the tag “Sponsored content” or something similar on the home page.
Alas, not all Web sites show the same scruples about sponsored content, giving them an unfair competitive advantage, so I’m delighted to see the U.S. Federal Trade Commission unveil a new enforcement policy for “native ads”—especially since Business Insider says spending on them will reach $21 billion by 2018.
BI is hardly the ultimate authority. But I find the prediction credible. Also see a related Motherboard article on the FTC crackdown.
Along with a news release describing the rules, the FTC has published Native Advertising: A Guide for Business, complete with detailed examples of what needs explicit labeling. For instance:
“The Winged Mercury Company disseminates an ad on Fitness Life, the online magazine described in Example 2. The ad is similar in format and content to regular articles on the site. The headline ‘Running Gear Up: Mistakes to Avoid’ appears next to a photo of a runner. In addition to other training suggestions, the article recommends Winged Mercury shoes for injury prevention. Consumers can access the article either from the Fitness Life main page or directly without viewing that page. In this instance, consumers are likely to conclude that the article was written by a Fitness Life journalist and reflects the journalist’s independent views. To prevent consumer deception, a clear and prominent disclosure of the ad’s commercial nature on the main page of the publisher’s site is necessary. In addition, because consumers can access the article without clicking through from the Fitness Life main page, the ad on that click-into page also should be clearly and prominently identified as commercial.”
One issue I’ll be curious about is how to handle comments from TeleRead community members responding to “sponsored content,” especially since the FTC understandably wants people to know ahead of time that they are clicking on SC. It could be that in addition to the “Sponsored” category tags visible on the home page, TeleRead will run “(SC) in the headlines, so the commercial connections show up clearly on our community page as well. What are you own feelings about appropriate identification of comments associated with sponsored content? How to do it best?
Complexities notwithstanding, as publisher of TeleRead I see honestly labeled sponsored content as a Good Thing in this era of ad blockers. Keep in mind our goal—not just to treat sponsored content as a revenue source, but also as a way to serve community members with relevant information they will regard as useful or entertaining.
Photo credit: Rickjpelleg.