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FTC Native Ad Guidelines – Protecting the Feeble-Minded From Themselves

But how much of an impact will new FTC rules really have on the way content marketers do business?

Over the last few months there’s been buzz in the content marketing world about the Federal Trade Commission’s (relatively) new native advertising guidelines, and with good reason. Anytime ‘Merica starts laying down guidelines within any industry, people are going to wonder if regulation will be next. Outbrain, Taboola and other distributors surely have their ears to the ground, trying to predict what comes next.
But how much of an impact will it really have on the way they do business?
On the surface, the regulations were set up to protect the consumer. A little scratching beneath the surface reveals the new rules are actually quite vague and more than a little silly. They’re really not even rules so much as polite suggestions.
Here are a few excerpts:
In evaluating whether an ad’s format is misleading, the Commission will scrutinize the entire ad, examining such factors as its overall appearance, the similarity of its written, spoken, or visual style to non-advertising content offered on a publisher’s site, and the degree to which it is distinguishable from such other content.
Uhm, OK. That’s not abstract or anything. What’s particularly stupid is that digital native advertising isn’t really any different than the native ads that ran for a century before the Internet was a thing. Was the FTC really not already doing this? If not, why is it starting now?
Determining whether an ad’s format is misleading based on “overall appearance” is incredibly subjective. Three different people could come up with as many opinions when looking at the same ad.
The more a native ad is similar in format and topic to content on the publisher’s site, the more likely that a disclosure will be necessary to prevent deception.
Do all native ads not already have disclosures? Yes, there are native ads that look incredibly similar to the editorial content on a given site, but they already carry labels like “sponsored” and “promoted.” A person might click on one of these ads every once in awhile thinking it’s editorial content, but most people figure out pretty quickly what is an ad and what isn’t.
Even if they don’t, what’s the worst thing that happens to most of us when we accidentally click on sponsored content? We get pissed, close the window and go find something we really want to read. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could click on a native ad unknowingly, read its content and then end up, say, convinced to sign up for a semester at Trump University.
What really makes the whole thing so stupid is that all content is basically sponsored. News site don’t happen in a vacuum. They have advertisers that pay their bills. Sure, some news sources can make it without ever being pressured by an advertiser to tailor its content one way or another at some point, but they are few and far between. True story: journalism is not as pure as it would like you to think. It’s ridiculous to expect native advertisers to be any better.
In the end, most companies probably won’t change the way they do anything. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the bigs eat a fine here and there as they just keep on trucking. At the end of the day, these are stupid regulations written by myopic bureaucrats to protect morons from themselves. Honestly, even morons really wouldn’t be in much danger of getting burned financially if these regulations had just remained sparkles in the FTC’s eyes.
But I guess the FTC has to do something so it seems like they’re working. Not that I’m judging. That’s the American Way.

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