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.

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