As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) starts to look into the ecosystem of native ads in an attempt to better understand and serve consumers' interests, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) - whose members are likely to be the most affected by any FTC decision - is throwing its weight in with a “Native Advertising Playbook” to try to set industry standards.
At stake is the unclear limits between editorial content and advertorials. This is the border between two symbiotic territories, that the consumer often at times cannot distinguish, hence the propensity of advertisers, publishers and brands to use such channels to lure buyers in. The FTC's workshop on the topic yesterday was called "Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?"
Timing is of the Essence
Understandably so, the IAB’s move comes in a timely manner to try to find common ground, in anticipation to any FTC decision to step into the game. The release of the Playbook can even be seen as an industry suggestion (or wish?) list ahead of the holidays, traditionally a time for heightened ads around the clock.
The proposed framework invites advertisers/marketers to look in two directions:
1. Categories: it’s the “identity” of the ads or “units” - in-feed units, paid search units, recommendation widgets, promoted listings, standard ads with “native” element units and, last but not least, “custom.” We’ll get back to that later.
2. Context: what to take into consideration when designing such native advertising units. Citing their own language here:
- Form – How does the ad fit with the overall page design? Is it in the viewer’s activity stream or not in-stream?
- Function – Does the ad function like the other elements on the page in which it is placed?
- Integration – How well do the ad unit’s behaviors match those of the surrounding content?
- Buying & targeting – Is the ad placement guaranteed on a specific page, section, or site, or will it be delivered across a network of sites? What type of targeting is available?
- Measurement – metrics (e.g., views, likes, shares, time spent or sale, download, data capture, register, etc.)
- Disclosure – How is this ad product identified as such?
Clearly, this is a strong encouragement for advertisers to pay attention to the elements above but in no way are those firm rules, at least thus far. And even so, it looks like the IAB Native Advertising Task Force has left plenty of room for manoeuver with avenues such as the undefined, freeform “custom” unit, as well as the open disclosure question, which could have been a more decisive "yes" or "no."
The FTC will no doubt be eyeing this proposed framework but it is likely to request firmer measures to protect consumers, including, precisely, identifying clearly the content as brand content/native advertising or editorial content/information. Any major rule setting is likely to send shockwaves as the practice of native advertising has proved to be a high ROI model, as evidenced by the flourishing ecosystem around it.
And just for the fun of it...
The FTC's workshop used "Blurred Lines" in its title: were they not the FTC, someone could have said they are doing brand content for Robin Thicke's album... And as for the IAB's use of "Playbook", let's just say it's not quite as good a choice as the FTC's, as Playbook is Blackberry's doomed tablet... so again, it could have been brand content right there but...