Did the FTC just kill native advertising?

One of the biggest buzzwords in the online ad industry for 2015 has been “native advertising“, or advertising which is cleverly camouflaged to match the other (“native”) non-advertising content on the page.

As Wikipedia defines it:

Native advertising is a type of advertising, usually online but feasibly elsewhere, that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears.

Publishers have rushed to the native advertising concept primarily because of the sharp rise in ad-blocking —  operating on the theory that if an ad is harder to identify as an ad, it should therefore perform better against ad blockers.

Never mind that this theory never really held up (Ad blockers swiftly adapted to block a wide variety of native ads and native ad networks), but now the FTC has produced it’s clearest statement yet on what it sees as an essentially deceptive form of advertising.

Native Advertising

Yes, it’s deceptive

In short:  If you can’t tell it’s an ad before you click on it, it’s deceptive advertising and against the law.

As the FTC puts it:

“Advertising and promotional messages that are not identifiable as advertising to consumers are deceptive if they mislead consumers into believing they are independent, impartial, or not from the sponsoring advertiser itself.”

“The Commission will find an advertisement deceptive if the ad misleads reasonable consumers as to its nature or source”

And there’s the problem from an ad-blocking perspective:  The ability of any native ad to evade ad blockers relies heavily on not being able to identify it as an advertisement.  As soon as any telltale “Advertising:” or “Sponsored Content:” message appears alongside the native advertising content, blocking that content becomes trivial.

Any publishers still hoping that native advertising holds the answer to ad-blocking will have to keep looking for another answer. The secret sauce that made native advertising special was ultimately the degree to which it could mimic non-advertising.  Now the FTC has clearly stated that disguising advertising as native content may be “deceptive” if the ad is not clearly marked as an ad — on the publisher’s site, not just the advertiser’s site:

“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.  Furthermore, because consumers can navigate to the advertising without first going to the publisher site, a disclosure just on the publisher’s site may not be sufficient.  In that instance, disclosures are needed both on the publisher’s site and the click- or tap-into page on which the complete ad appears, unless the click-into page is obviously an ad.”

Which of course, makes it incredibly easy to identify — and block.

Is it any wonder that more and more publishers are arriving at the decision to simply Block Adblock?

  • Zod

    So when FOX News pretends to “report” on Republican candidates, they’re breaking the law, right?

  • mcgrood_38

    Adding ad-serving networks to the blocked section of HOSTS files makes the adds go away for good. It’s also quite easy to spoof the ad-block detection.

    The only reason ad-blocking is becoming mainstream is that the advertisers have pushed and pushed and become so obnoxious the last resort is to turn to ad-blocking.

    I personally refuse to allow almost any add except adds served by the website itself, since ad servers are a huge source of malware, and hog bandwidth. If advertisers are willing to pay me for the bandwidth they stole from me, and agree to only host adds themselves, and not from malware-ridden third parties, I’ll consider looking at ads again.

    They had their chance, and they got greedy.

    • Anne Crowleeeeee

      Right, right, the advertisers are “stealing” from you. They’re cluttering up your magical free web content.

      Millennial entitlement syndrome perfectly illustrated.

      Are you stealing CPU cycles from the publisher? Or are you the only one with the lucky victim card?

      • Sean

        How much metered bandwidth on cell phones do advertisers have to suck up per unwanted ad before it _does_ become ‘stealing’? Every ad someone doesn’t wants to see represents part of their data allotment they don’t get to use for what they _want_ to see.

        • Anne Crowleeeeee

          Oh god. Another one.

          Look, forget ads. Some mobile websites don’t compress their content. Some mobile websites use fancy web-fonts. Some mobile websites are responsive and use the same high-bandwidth images for desktop and mobile.

          Guess what.

          You aren’t *entitled* to a low bandwidth experience. Websites that don’t optimize aren’t “stealing” from you. They’re just not as cheap to download as you’d like them to be.

          You also aren’t entitled to free media.

        • Xander

          Are you under the impression you have control over how much bandwidth you use on the open web? How much did you just use loading this page? Is this website well optimized? Or does it pre-fetch 25 additional pages via javascript in the background?

          You have absolutely no idea what publishers are doing behind the scenes.

          If you can’t afford your mobile bill, don’t surf the web as much.

          And where is your quid pro quo? You make it sound like it’s the god given right of users to access only what “they want to see”. Yeah, it’s your device. But it’s not your server. You’re accessing someone’s intellectual AND physical property.

          • I subscribed to Slashdot.org when it made subscriptions available. And for years, I paid for e-mail service.

            If I wanted, I could write a browser extension that would let me thumbs-up or -down every single one of those 25 different resources that a page wants to fetch. That’s all blockers amount to: a way to express policies to accept or reject requests for resources. And if one of those policies is “block all resources with Content-type: application/javascript or text/javascript except those I specifically let through”, the BlockAdblock script isn’t going to do jack.

          • Beth Singley

            LOL. You go do that.

      • Heh

        Anyone ready to lose ad-revenue? The Block Block Adblock extension works xD.

  • NubCake

    South Park anyone?

  • Excellent news – love Adblockers too – wonderful invention – makes browsing so much faster and cleaner.

    • Xander

      You should try shoplifting. It makes the shopping experience much better too. No cues. No annoying checkout process. And the savings are really eye-opening. Basically stores are stealing from us and wasting our time.

      • TM Caffeine

        I see adblocking as simply not eating everything on the plate. Ads are offered, but there is no obligation to accept them.

      • Silly analogy. Not worth debating.

      • “the savings are really eye-opening” lmao no coupon needed lol

      • Heh

        Heh, this comment is what inspired me to do this. I’m currently working on a workaround to Block Adblock. Should be ready in a week. I mean, what the hell are you going to do? There are more developers that hate ads then there are developers that love ads. In essence, get rekt. You’re probably not going to win.

        -Feel Pain
        Signed, Ursrname