THE BEST OF 2016! What's your favorite airline, car rental company, cruise line, travel insurance, and more? Find out now.

Is this story a fake? 5 ways you can tell

Nenetus/Shutterstock
Nenetus/Shutterstock
Not a day seems to go by that I don’t receive an email that commends me for my “well-written” site and asks, “Do you accept sponsored content and if so, how much you charge?”

These blind queries — they’re so generic that they can’t even bring themselves to address me by name or say which site I write for — are being sent by companies trying to place what’s called “native” advertising online.

Here’s what you need to know about native content: They’re ads masquerading as objective stories. And the practice has become so worrisome that the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates this form of advertising, recently held a workshop to discuss the problem.

But what, exactly, is the problem?

You’re being fooled by these ads. It’s not just you; they’re duping search engines like Google by blurring the line between credible editorial content and advertising.

Full disclosure: I have some skin in this game. I’ve dabbled in creating and publishing “native” content in the past, and have very serious misgivings about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the practice of making ads look like a story, no matter how well disclosed, is bad for readers and bad for journalism, because it’s lying.

If you’re saying to yourself: “So what?” then you’re in the majority. Where’s the consumer harm?

Well, imagine if all the ads disappeared from your favorite newspaper or magazine, and instead, companies were allowed to file stories that looked virtually identical to the other articles. Imagine if your favorite search engine couldn’t tell the difference between the legit story and the one placed by a company.

Now, imagine how this shift would affect your purchasing decisions. That flattering car review might steer you in the direction of buying a new vehicle. The glowing write-up of a credit card might lead you to switch cards. The over-the-top hotel review could sway you into booking a vacation.

Native advertising has infested American journalism. One study says blogs derive fully one-third of their revenue from native ads. This year, publishers will earn an estimated $2.85 billion from this type of duplicitous content, more than double the amount earned in 2012.

But here’s how you can tell if you’re reading an ad masquerading as a story:

Look for superlatives. Most native content is remarkably unsophisticated, because it must be approved by the client, the advertiser. These marketers waste no opportunity to describe their products in the most flattering terms. What’s more, they do you a huge favor by inserting hyperlinks at the description in order to game Google’s search algorithm. So, if you see a mention of a “best beach resort” or “top credit card” and there’s a hyperlink, chances are you’re looking at a native ad. Click away!

No negatives. Since it’s advertising, chances are you won’t see anything negative. Competitors, if mentioned at all, will be described in generic terms. The product being hawked will be framed in an entirely positive way. Marketers can’t bring themselves to say anything remotely bad, so you’ll get the impression that absolutely nothing can go wrong when you sign up for that high-interest credit card. But oh, it can.

Little disclaimers. True, the FTC requires that sponsored content carry a disclaimer, but those warnings are fairly easy to hide online. If you look closely, you can see the “sponsored content” tag. When you do, treat the story as if it’s an ad. (Your search engine probably isn’t.)

A call to action. Native ads just can’t help themselves. Even if they manage to avoid superlatives, hide the disclaimers and use negatives (I’ll tell you how they do that in a minute) they must include a call to action. Why? Because the success of a native ad campaign depends on conversions, or ensuring that you buy a product. How else can they prove their little lie had its intended effect? Look for an obvious altar call: try now, buy now, or something similar. The most sophisticated campaigns don’t wait until the bottom of the story to rope you in. When you see the call, you’ll know what you’re reading.

Affiliate links, please. Some of the most impressive native advertising efforts don’t involve mainstream media outlets, but blogs. They manage to create compelling and credible content designed for the sole purpose of either pushing readers to buy a product or adding more search-engine juice. In my experience, the endgame is convincing you to sign up for a co-branded credit card that lets you collect loyalty points. They’re the free-radicals of the native advertising world, because they look and act like real journalism. In some cases, they may even offer useful tips to readers. But make no mistake. These blogs are there for one purpose, and only one: to sell more products. Check the “helpful” links at the bottom of the page and if the URL takes you to the product by way of an affiliate site like linkoffers.net, then watch out. It’s probably a clever ad.

The solution seems obvious. This deceptive form of advertising should be banned by the FTC. But I’m a realist. The agency will probably send out a few warning letters in a few weeks, then let this industry continue to grow. Never mind the harm caused to consumers.

But you don’t have to be a victim. You need to know how to spot these dangerous ads, and now you do.

Do you trust a site that runs "native" ads?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Helio

    It is a plague in Brazilian blogs, mostly fashion ones, some travel ones too.

    The most famous case here was when Sephora started its operation in Brazil, and it hired several fashion “blogettes” to did publiposts. It was so obvious, without any disclaimers, that the FTC equivalent issued a public reprimand to Sephora and 4 fashion bloggers.

  • FQTVLR

    I have never fallen for one of these “fake” news stories and cannot remember even reading one. I do not read blogs unless a friend or business acquaintance is writing about her/his travels or family. My news comes from news sites or actual newspapers and I read a variety of those to keep well informed.
    And I am laughing at the too many superlatives. Too many superlatives as well as too many negatives indicate something is not right. It goes in both directions—whether one of these fake stories, online reviews and or a complaint about a problem—to many superlatives or too many negatives indicate that something is not quite truthful in the posting.

  • Fishplate

    “My news comes from news sites or actual newspapers and I read a variety of those to keep well informed.”

    Actual newspapers are just as guilty of printing “advertorial” material, and making it hard to discern.

  • AJPeabody

    It’s just the digitization of the gushing “reviews” and “articles” found in the weekly ad throwaway like Pennysaver. They also have people hired to show up at events and busy singles bars touting this and that. And they put product placement in movies and TV shows. And my ad blocker stops 15 to 20 ads on this site (unblocked, it crashes my old computer at home). I think someone here is fond of saying “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Ads pay the bills, like it or not.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If you’ve never remember reading one, how do you know you haven’t fallen for one? And I echo Fishplate, I see them all the time on “legit” news outlets.

  • emanon256

    I heard a story on the radio last week about how The New York Times will start running native ads, though they call it “Sponsored Content.” Its sad in two parts, one because they are doing it, and two because they said that people are no longer willing to pay for a paper, they would rather get their “news” from social media and blogs, and the Times needs to pay it’s journalists somehow.

    In the Times case, they said their sponsored content can not have any calls to action, they can only offer brand awareness, and they will have the words, “Paid Post” in the header of each article, as well as another message above the content stating who paid for it. At least they are trying to differentiate it from reporting and inform consumers, but its a fine like, and a step in the wrong direction in my opinion.

  • emanon256

    Many people are not even aware they are reading sponsored content in well known news sites and actual news papers. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-15/the-atlantic-the-church-of-scientology-and-the-perils-of-native-advertising

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Although I read newspapers daily, I don’t see the shift as a bad thing. It’s just the normal evolution of society and the changing norms which technological advancement brings.

    Remember, when we all gathered around the fireplace listening to the radio every night. (LOL. Ok, probably not)

    :p

  • MarkKelling

    My local hometown newspaper has started doing a similar thing in their online version. What used to be links at the end of articles to other articles either within their own site or on other news sites now points mainly to sites trying to sell you something. I really hate this because if I am reading something about, oh I don’t know, travel for example, and I click on an article link that says “new airline fees on the horizon” I expect where I end up to be a news article about fees and not an ad for a credit card that allows you to “avoid” those fees.

    It is sad that news sites have to resort to these tactics to stay in business but what else can they do when everyone wants everything “free”

  • AJPeabody

    The print NYT now has a front page with only one or two “front page” articles, with the rest being feature articles and commentary. They have said that readers get their hard news on line. Yet they are giving in to the not-news news on line! O tempores! O mores!

  • AJPeabody

    This site, too.

  • MarkKelling

    Actually I do remember radio nights. My grandmother lived on a farm that was too far from any TV station to get a useable signal. So when we visited her it was radio or nothing. It was actually fun to listen to a baseball game on the radio and use your imagination to put pictures to the sounds and the descriptions from the announcer.

  • Helio

    Ads are one thing, native ads are another.

    Let’s use here as an example: you can block the banners etc. in Chris site. But let’s suppose Chris write an article stating that some legacy carrier is a good company, its affinity program is the best one in the market, and all the others are crap. You cannot block this supposed article, and it probably is a native ad.

  • MarkKelling

    If I ever see an article here that states an affinity program is anything other than a pox on humanity, I will immediately know the site has been hacked! :-)

  • Helio

    Ok, I used an extreme example ;-)

  • emanon256

    You’re right, I can’t fight progress. I still feel deceived.

    Ha! We did have some radio nights when I was growing up. And my dad always had to listen to the news which I found boring.

    I remember being devastated when A Prairie Home Companion went off the air in the late 80s. They felt like a part of our family. It’s not the same now, so I only listen occasionally.

  • Pam Mandel

    I’ve recently shifted my disclosure policy so it’s right up top and the reader can make no mistake about what the content is. I state explicitly if the service/goods I review were given to me free of charge — “My hotel stay was paid for.” I have never been paid to write sponsored content for my own site, but if I were, I would also explicitly state, up top. “I was paid to write about X.” I watched the entire FTC event and there were two very telling takeaways:

    1. When asked “Why not just label it ‘advertising’?”, publishers and ad providers on the panels were stumped into silence. I believe this is because the honest answer is that they do not want readers to know it’s advertising. Those long pauses were… something. I tell you what.
    2. Data showed that readers did not understand the words “sponsored post” or any of the other labels commonly used in disclaimer language — they simply did not know they were reading advertorial.

    My reaction to this, as a trusted resource, is to make sure they know EXACTLY the terms I’m writing under. I do think it’s possible to have a trustworthy site that also runs native ads, but to do so, you *MUST* explicitly disclose the terms of the content so that there can be no mistake as to what it is. The reader can they say, “Oh, this is an ad, a comp, whatever….” and read from that place, or move on to something else.

  • AJPeabody

    Actually, I don’t block ads on my fast laptop. Having ads on a free site is part of the deal. I only block ads on sites where the ads interfere with the site itself (are you listening Chowhound?). Somone very clever will find a way to block labeled advertorials, but then only the unlabeled ones will get through and they are by definition the worst of the slimey lot. Can I have my free lunch now?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    My $0.02. I’ve wrote a couple long paragraphs about when native ads would be appropriate. But as I thought it through, even those situations fell short.

    At the end of the day, a native ad is simply a charlatan; an ad masquerading as an article for the sole purpose of deceiving the reader. As an article the native ad gains far more legitimacy than is warranted and lulls the reader/viewer into a false sense of security, thus turning off their normal skepticism, or BS detector, one normally uses when reading an ad.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Kudos on the clear disclosure. My question.

    What is the advantage of sponsored content over a regular ad that everyone knows is an ad. besides the fact that some portion of the audience won’t know that they are reading an ad? If that’s true, isn’t running native ads inconsistent with a trustworthy site?

  • Pam Mandel

    First, in case it’s not clear, I don’t run sponsored content, native ads, pay for play, whatever you want to call it.

    I sometimes take free “stuff” — hotel rooms, gear, attraction admission passes… and if/when I write about it, I tell my readers, “I did not pay for this.” I have become increasingly direct about the language I use to disclose the terms.

    You’ve stated the advantage. Everyone *doesn’t* know it’s an ad, that’s why publishers need to tell them. Native advertising fools the reader into thinking it’s editorially independent, that it’s a legitimate review, or good advice, when the goal is actually to promote something. It also puts cold hard cash into the publisher’s (be it a blog, a newspaper, a website) pocket.

  • DavidYoung2

    Even the most legitimate publications buy into this. Bloomberg and The Economist will have “Special Advertising Sections” although they do say at the top that they are advertisements.

    I don’t think all advertising is bad and some is quite informative. Just know what you’re reading and frame it accordingly.

  • Mark Cuban

    AdBlock Plus. I don’t even see them.

  • Bill___A

    Although this site does not seem to contain these sorts of articles, which is good – there does seem to be an abundance of misleading “ad links” which do go to these sorts of stories – which is disappointing. I realize advertising is needed in order to keep the site free, but the types of advertising are troubling in this case.
    Yes, I see a Best Western and a Ford ad to the right, these are tasteful, appropriate ads with links and nothing wrong with that. However, there is, at the bottom, the misleading tag “around the web” and links to advertisements disguised as stories.
    Although it is up to Chris which advertising he has on his site, it would be certainly desireable to have these offensive misleading links removed.

  • emanon256

    And my add blocker never seems to block the “Around The Web” ads. Ive even clicked on them a few times thinking they were Chris’s stories, as sometimes his stories show up there.

  • Helio

    Yes, it is inconsistent with a trustworthy site, but the objective is not to be trustworthy, is to win money

    Let’s suppose your favorite travel blog writes wonders about a new resort. He paid his trip, his meals, his lodging. You will probably trust the info. But would you trust the post if you had know that the resort paid the blogger to pay a visit and write a post? Probably not.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I”m not sure what your point is. I read this site because although I disagree vehemently with much of what Chris says, I know he strives for a trustworthy site and conducts himself accordingly. That is a goal of many writers.

    Other writer enjoy the perks that having a following provides, complimentary or at least upgraded travel and that’s their business. I decline to read their writings.

  • Mark Carrara

    Anyone who claims to never have seen sponsored content just search for best web hosting. 99.99% of the results are sponsored content, most with affiliate links. Many will review say 5 hosts and have affilate status with all 5, then tell you they all are the best web host company.

  • emanon256

    For this very reason, I have had one heck of a time finding a new new hosting company, all I find when I search is garbage and my current company isn’t so hot either.

  • omgstfualready

    Print magazines have been doing this for years and years. Is that a problem too? It is moderately disclosed, but not overtly, you have to look for it.

  • omgstfualready

    I asked this above but print publications, or at least the magazines I read, have had these for years and now say they are an ad. TV commercials used to have all those happy people in them but now say they are paid actors. This is the same thing, why is it so difficult for the FTC to see?

  • omgstfualready

    Why the ‘down’ vote?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Gremlins. I fed one after midnight :p

  • Helio

    Sorry if I gave the impression that I consider Chris site is not trustworthy. It wasn’t my intention. I do trust it.

    The problem with native ad isn’t the people who doesn’t hide they were paid for the article (not necessary money, but perks or anything else). The problem is the people who does hide it.

    I’ll try my resort example again:

    1) the writer visited the resort, paid all his expenses, wrote that he loved the place – trustworthy.
    2) the writer visited the same resort, advised that the resort paid all his expenses, and wrote he loved the place – not so trustworth.
    3) the writer visited the resort, wrote he loved the place, and “forgot” to disclaim that the trip was a gift, free of charge or he was paid for the post (or worst, he wrote the article in a way giving the impression he paid all form his pocket) – this is (for me) a classic case of native ad, less trustworthy than the 2nd example.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Oh, I agree with you 110%. That’s why I was confused about your post.

    :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. I find the TV infomercials to be by far the most honest in terms of letting you know that it’s a paid endorsement.

    The disclosure is usually fairly prominent;
    The gushing guests;
    The loud promoter;
    The time of day when most people are at work or asleep.

    I don’t think that they are even pretending to be anything other than an hour long advertisement. I can live with that

  • Extramail

    It’s not just the native ads that are driving me crazy but its also the limitless ads you receive when you have signed up to receive a newsletter. I signed up for a tech newsletter and I should have known what to expect given the content of the very first newsletter i received after signing up. t was hard to find the article I wanted to read for all of the advertisements in the newsletter and, to add insult to injury, I started receiving three to four “newsletters” a day trying to sell me a product that was “endorsed” by the writer of the newsletter. I hated to end the newsletter because it did contain useful information but I can’t abide all of the ads. So, Mr. Elliot, if your emails begin to look like solicitations instead of content, I’ll quit you, too.

  • Extramail

    And, times when the tv, Internet and phone lines go down. I cleaned out three closets today waiting for the crew to come fix the problem. One heck of an ice storm here last night.

  • FQTVLR

    But I do not read them there either and, in the newspapers I read , they are sectioned off and labeled advertisement. Much easier to spot and ignore.

  • FQTVLR

    I will clarify and say I have never read one. And I am certain about that.

  • Justin

    Learned something new….Informative story about an underhanded practice.

  • Justin

    Carver gathered around the Victrola (record player) and jitter bugged his way to the 21st century =).

  • Justin

    Same here… Ice and snow… What state are you in? Ohio here.

  • Justin

    Sirius Satellite Radio is a good companion on long drives.

    1987 (Wikipedia). Heard of the movie and radio show.. No idea what either are about honestly.

  • emanon256

    I’m too cheap for satellite radio. I had it a while ago, but the price kept going up, and I began driving less.

    We used to sit in the living room every Sunday night and listen to A Prairie Home Companion, even though we lived in NY, no where near the Prairie. It was a variety show with stories and jokes and music. It was great! The sound effects were my favorite part.

  • emanon256

    I started using MaskMe It gives me a fake e-mail I can use to sign up, and if I don’t like what they are sending and unsubscribe didn’t work, I can just shut down the fake e-mail. You can even find out who sold your e-mail address when you get spam. I just started using it recently, I wish I knew about it sooner because I gave out my real e-mail to way too many places that must have sold it.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    hello !!! Do you live under a rock ?

    With newspaper journos being sacked by the hundreds, PR firms are now responsible for many “stories” in newspapers. Sometimes these get inserted word for word.

    It’s hardly new. Been happening for decades. The only difference is now the internet.

    All on TV many stories of new drugs are supplied by PR firms. Makes it far cheaper to fill an hour of news, if someone else supplies the copy.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    oh really ? I bet the house you have & don’t even know it.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    oh boy … for a start “stories” supplied by PR firms ARE NEVER labelled advertising !!!

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    that’s impossible. You can’t be certain AT ALL !!!

  • omgstfualready

    I have one email for this stuff (yes, my Disqus too) and my real email. Problem avoided.

  • omgstfualready

    Even some regular ads with someone in a white coat I’ve seen on the screen a quick blip of ‘actor portrayal’ or something like that. It wasn’t always there, I think in the 80s it was initially thought a real doctor was saying how great something was when it was an actor in a white coat – it never said it was a doctor but it was visually misleading. Same problem, new generation.

  • Justin

    Never feed Gremlins after Midnight =X. By the way, I first read that wrong and read: Germans, I fed one after midnight.. Woops.. I’m tired.

  • Justin

    I’m boring and only listen to a few stations. Costs 16 / month. I drive constantly so the tunes keep the monotony to a minimum.

    Sounds kind of interesting. If I did listen to the show as a child, I wouldn’t remember. I was 5 in 1987, so I assume you’re a couple years older than me.

  • VoR61

    Downloaded it and did some (brief) testing. Removed it immediately because it’s retaining accounts and passwords on otherwise clear screens. Recommend you use caution with this add-on.

    For many “sign ups”, we use a fake email (does not exist) and that suffices. The real ones usually require you to respond to an email they send.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Of course, if you read one, and were duped, how would you know?

  • emanon256

    Just a couple ;)

  • emanon256

    That’s scary, glad I only use it for sites I don’t trust, at least I don’t care about those passwords.

  • Justin

    How many are those “couple”?

  • VoR61
  • VoR61

    Actually, it retains EVERY account/password you enter, even for other sites!

  • Nathan Witt

    I’m rather astonished that common disclaimer language fools people, or that they don’t understand it. What has happened to us?! I can understand not knowing about the practice or being fooled by unlabeled content, but when the label is there…

  • Pam Mandel

    I was surprised by this too, honestly, but it’s what the data wonks found and reported on at the FTC event on sponsored content. Mind you, most do NOT explicitly state “This is advertising” or “my hotel stay was paid for by [sponsor name].” I’m not sure my mom — who is a hyper-literate person — knows what “sponsored content” means or my friends who exist outside the publishing bubble.

    They also did eye-tracking studies — common when testing how people use websites — and found that in most cases, readers skipped right over the “special advertising section” (or similar language) label.

  • VagoDamitio

    All journalism is paid for by advertising. Readers and consumers need to be discriminating. We don’t need the FTC and the media nazis for adult readers or consumers.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I respectfully disagree. Disclosure requirements are almost always appropriate. Business routinely claim that adequate disclosure laws will have catastrophic impact on business. This is routinely proven false. Everything from nutritional labels, to actual interest paid on a loan. They merely make it more difficult for the business to take advantage of the customer. And I am very pro-business. But deception must not be tolerated.

  • http://www.alloverthemap.net/ Paige Conner Totaro

    Even with the FTC guidelines, many bloggers and websites still do not run disclaimers or make it obvious that content is sponsored. I have been approached many times by people wanting to pay for space on my website, but when I explain that it will be tagged as an advertisement, they are no longer interested. I can only assume that they are finding other blogs on which to run their content without disclaimers.