Financial Resource Center

Money Management

How to Spot Advertising in Disguise

by Rena Crispin, CUDE, CCUFC / April 21st, 2021

In recent years, the boundaries between independent and paid media have become blurry. It’s getting harder to tell if an article, video, or infographic is an objective piece or “native advertisement” — a paid ad made to look like the kind of media it’s appearing in, like an article in a magazine. 

What is native advertising?

Traditional advertorials, or sponsored articles in print publications like newspapers and magazines, have been around for a long time.

But as media companies shifted focus to an online presence, the advertorial evolved into native advertising: sponsored content that blends seamlessly with the editorial design and tone of a publication’s website.

Since most consumers are familiar with clickable banner ads that are so prevalent on the Web, we tend to ignore them—which is bad news for advertisers. Native advertising comes into play as a direct result of those ineffective banner ads.

Today, native ads are the most popular type of advertising.

The reason we click

You've probably experienced clicking through to native advertisements because you didn't realize you were clicking on an ad.

When we’re looking at a publication, our general assumption is that we’re getting independent, objective information. And that’s the real crux of it. Advertisers want to blur that line.

Some native ads are clearly labeled with the word “Advertisement” at the top, but once you click through, the story is laid out like any other story would be.

How to identify a native ad

With regard to paid content, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires transparency from online publishers. If a publisher includes an ad in its content, it must clearly and conspicuously disclose that information.

However, native advertising use strategies that still can make it hard for consumers to tell whether they’re reading sponsored content. They might put disclosures in fine print, make it smaller, and change the color, for example.

Verbiage like "sponsored by," "suggested post," or "featured partner," is a giveaway that what you're reading is a native advertisement. Also, look for fine print at the top or bottom of stories you read online.

Some native advertisements do feature more prominent distinctions, such as wraparound branding with the sponsor’s logo displayed. But obvious forms of native advertising have become the exception and not the rule.

The debate continues

As the use of native advertising grew, the FTC took steps to analyze the practice and its effect on consumers. In early 2016, they issued an enforcement policy statement  that basically tells advertisers that the days of playing fast and easy in native advertising are over.

The following two organizations keep tabs on the latest native advertisements and other forms of misleading advertising:

  • Truth in Advertising is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to be the go-to online resource dedicated to empowering consumers to protect themselves and one another against false advertising and deceptive marketing.
  • The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) develops technical standards, best practices, and fields critical research on interactive advertising, while also educating brands, agencies, and the wider business community on the importance of digital marketing.

Native advertising is not inherently deceiving but recognizing it will help you become aware of an article or infographic’s main purpose – to sell something to you. 


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