Regulators Might Have to Stop and Frisk Your Native Ads

Do these kids even know the difference between “ad” and “editorial?”

Regulators at the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (which operates under the Council of Better Business Bureaus) have heard PR and marketing talking a big game about “content”, but they aren’t sure exactly where to draw the line between “paid promotion” and “editorial”. In other words, they think your latest sponsored post looks suspiciously out of place, so they might just have to give it the once-over.

Should you be worried?

Well, recent cases do mark a change for the Self-Regulatory Council’s investigative arm, known as the National Advertising Division. They usually respond to marketers’ complaints about competitors breaking the rules, but they investigated Mashable and a site called eSalon of their own volition after observing what they took to be misleading practices.

In Mashable’s case, the investigative team determined that the site could remove “sponsored by Snapdragon” statements from stories after the company’s sponsorship ended because editors had planned the posts ahead of time and didn’t have any input from the sponsor when writing them. In the case of eSalon, the group found that the brand needed to more clearly label the promotional content posted on a site it created called

This story highlights two possible sponsored content strategies:

  • Slap a brand name on stories related to your industry that the writers would have published anyway (like Chipotle on HuffPo)
  • Sponsor posts that have absolutely nothing to do with the product you’re selling but could make you cool by association (hi there, BuzzFeed)

One thing is clear: if it’s obvious at a glance that a post was created purely to promote a brand, then it probably won’t be too successful.

And what’s coming up on the regulatory front? In December, the FTC will hold a workshop designed to help those outside the industry better understand what “native” is all about—but former FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz recently told Ad Age that we shouldn’t get too upset about the possibility of new regulations, because “the FTC is not going to engage in rulemaking”. At the same time, it’s worth noting that some content distributors are leaning toward clearer labeling.

Our theory: once the Self-Regulatory Council and other groups get more comfortable with the concept of native ads, they’ll be less likely to ask such content what it’s doing in the “editorial” part of town.