A couple of recent but contrasting opinion pieces on native advertising compel me to write. (For the uninitiated, native advertising is content paid for and controlled by brands, but which looks like news, features, reviews, entertainment and other content that surrounds it online.)

First to ad lawyer Brinsley Dresden in Marketing Magazine, who asks “Is the ASA killing native advertising?” Referring to our recent Buzzfeed/Dylon ruling, he argues we were wrong to conclude that the reference to “Brand publisher” alongside Dylon’s name and logo at the top of the listicle in question was not enough to flag it as advertising. Complaining that the ASA is only prepared to accept words like “advertisement feature” to disclose native advertising, he wonders whether we’re treating the average consumer as gullible.

A very different view from former editor Chris Blackhurst in Campaign magazine. Headlined “Ads and editorial getting too close for comfort”, he tells the story of ad salespeople visiting editors, ad proposals in hand, who have “sold the idea of an advertorial to the client…. They’ll have resisted putting the words “advertisement” or “advertising feature” [there’s that term again] at the top; they’ll have ensured its content is in the same font, type and size as the paper’s. If they can, they will want it to appear exactly like the editorial”. Online, he says, the balance has tilted further, with “an unspoken feeling that on the website … standards do not need to be as high”. Welcoming our ruling (and an earlier one against Telegraph/Michelin Tyre), Chris warns that going native must have clear limits or readers will become disillusioned.

Now, I do get that reasonable minds can disagree on whether we’ve drawn the line in the right place on individual cases. These cases are rarely black and white and Brinsley is entitled to argue, as he did in his quote in the Financial Times’ coverage of the Buzzfeed ruling, that the “average consumer with a bit of common sense and intelligence” would understand that the listicle was advertising. But I worry when I hear another of the arguments the FT reported he made, relating to the impact of our crackdown: “The fear of advertisers is that if you end up in a world where you have to label all these pieces of content advertisement or advertorial, people would be less inclined to engage with them.”

To that point, I say this: why would people be less inclined to engage with clearly labelled content, if not because some of them had been duped into thinking it was editorial?

Happily for all, research tells us people like engaging with native if they know it’s advertising. It’s finding out too late (or not at all) that they don’t like. Blurring advertising and editorial is prohibited by our rules and by the law. And it’s that blurring that risks killing native advertising, not ASA rulings that insist on unambiguously clear disclosure.

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  • Guy Parker

    Guy Parker

    Chief Executive

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Guy became Chief Executive of the ASA, the UK regulator of ads in all media, in 2009.  Responsible for executing the ASA’s strategy to make UK ads responsible, he oversees all functions of the ASA system. Read more