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5 Ways to Use Native Ads Without Losing Sleep

Native advertising: an online advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience.

Native advertising exists. There really isn’t a whole lot to add to a debate about its existence or about the widespread practice: they are commonplace on most media platforms (everywhere from the New York Times to imgur), and many businesses (from Heineken to Netflix) use them with hopes to get distribution that a typical ad wouldn’t achieve.

(If you really want to understand how widespread the practice is, check out this Altimeter presentation on native ads.)

But as John Oliver recently articulated, and many people have piggybacked on, there are some ethical considerations when subjective third parties publish embedded ad content with a publisher.


Enter the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America). The FTC held a day-long session last year to explore how to regulate native advertising, concluding that it requires “further study.”

The PRSA went a step further by issuing specific guidance about the ethics of native advertising. They published five recommendations for PR practitioners to use native advertising tactics ethically. What I want to do in this piece is to use the PRSA recommendations as a framework for discussing “white-hat” practices for native advertising.

1. Full disclosure

Full Disclosure - Native Advertising in PR

The biggest concern about native advertising is that someone will misconstrue placed content for objective content. AdAge points out that the FTC already has clear guidelines on sponsored content:

  • Disclosures must be clear and conspicuous.
  • Disclosures must be in close proximity to the main claim.
  • Disclosures must be easy to notice, read and understand.

The PRSA guidelines are fairly congruent with the FTC:

“The sponsorship of news (traditional and online), blog posts, and other social media platforms for advertising is fully disclosed within the context of the content and made consistently clear to readers/viewers/users.”

PR expert Robin Thornton says that disclosure isn’t just important on ethical grounds, but the trust and goodwill that deceptive ads can compromise may not be recoverable:

“Fundamentally, it is wrong to mislead people. But the more successful you are at making the ad fit the environment, the stronger the consumer backlash when they realize they have been fooled.”

2. Appropriate disclosure

Native Advertising for PR - Clear and Appropriate

“When native advertising first appeared many [companies] thought about whether disclosure was necessary or not. I think everyone recognizes now the answer is ‘yes,’ but the debate has shifted to how that disclosure actually needs to be made,” said Linda Goldstein, advertising lawyer and partner at law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips (in the Wall Street Journal)

It’s not enough just to be honest about placed advertising content, the context matters as well. The Interactive Advertising Bureau identifies six different types of native ads:

  • In-Feed Units
  • Paid Search Units
  • Recommendation Widgets
  • Promoted Listings
  • In-Ad with Native Element Units
  • Custom /”Can’t Be Contained”

From that list, you can see how a disclosure in the context of one type would be inappropriate for another. And that’s more or less what the PRSA acknowledges when it says this:

“Sponsored content and native advertising should be clearly discernible from editorial content and must not attempt to deceive the reader into believing that the content comes from an independent point of view.”

Want to read more of Jim’s thoughts on PR? Click here for his article “Is Native Advertising a Threat to PR? It’s Actually a Weapon.”

3. Clear disclosure throughout

Truth - Native Adveritising in PR

Probably one of the more controversial PRSA recommendations is disclosure throughout the placed content. PRSA suggests that native advertising should be clearly identifiable throughout the piece, which for a long-form piece of content may be more feasible than for a Taboola article.

Within this guideline, PRSA suggests differentiation of font, size, color and style to differentiate placed content from actual content. A good exemplar of this are the (myriad) native ads on Buzzfeed.

PRSA’s guidelines seem congruent with the native advertising guidelines from the American Society of Magazine Editors:

“Native advertising should not use the same graphics, including type fonts, as editorial content and should be separated visually from editorial content.”

4. Transparent social media sponsorship

Facebook - Native Advertising PR

Marketing expert Christopher Penn discusses a “golden rule” when it comes to social media and paid content disclosure:

“If money changes hands, obvious disclosure may occur.”

Marketer Selena Chan writing on behalf of WPP also affirms that disclosure is necessary when promoting paid content on social platforms.

The PRSA advocates the same level of disclosure that Penn and Chan do. If content is paid and shared via social media, there is a level of disclosure that should occur there. More specifically they state that:

“If a media outlet is promoting a series sponsored by brand the tweet should disclose the sponsorship (e.g., “Top Ten Summer Travel Tips”- sponsored by @ACUtravel).”

5. Consider the publics

Publics - Native Advertising in PR

The final PRSA recommendation is less of a recommendation and more of an aspiration. They state:

“Public relations professionals can take advantage of the opportunity to promote their client and support media partners through sponsored content advertising while preserving, protecting, and enhancing the media partners’ objectivity and credibility.”

What they’re trying to communicate is that being as transparent as possible while using native ads as a tactic serves your reputation, your client reputation, the media outlet’s reputation and to sustain the public trust. When considering the ethics of anything PR-related, if you can do right by all of those constituencies you will be successful.

Jim Dougherty is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders WestFor more marketing advice from Jim, click here.

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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