Native advertising’s roots stretch back a century, to when newspapers and radio stations first pioneered the blending of editorial and advertising. But whilst native is not necessarily new, the rules around the current and future capabilities it brings in a digital environment are far more so.
In many countries, regulation has existed for years to ensure the appropriate distinction between content and ads — after all, advertorial has been around for a long time. But when it comes to the enhanced benefits digital native offers, many regulators have had to play catch-up in the last five years. Every set of regulations frequently undergoes recodification, and we have just seen a mini-flurry of regulatory activity that constitutes the biggest month of updates to native governance seen in several years.
During my career in the industry, this has been a common experience, given the level of advances in technology. Yesterday’s guidelines will not fit the innovations of tomorrow’s digital advertising industry. This means you need to be quite aware of what these changes mean and how you can stay ahead of the curve.
The Evolution Of Native Ad Regulations
First, let’s back up a little. When digital native advertising first came to prominence in 2011, it caused controversy. Many were concerned that masking ads as content would cause journalism to collapse. For the record, I believe that appropriate distinction between commercial and editorial is not only proper, it also leads to better engagement.
By 2013, the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) issued a position paper clarifying that the new practice of native fell under the existing CAP Code , a rulebook for how advertisements should be presented. By the end of that year, the IAB published guidelines defining six variants of native ad distribution:
• In-Feed Units: This is an ad format that users of any large social media platform would be familiar with. It delivers a native ad as part of the user experience.
• Paid Search Units: These are found at the top of online searches and are clearly marked as sponsored units.
• Third-Party Recommendation Tools: These tend to be found at the end of articles whereby readers are recommended stories to click on.
• Promoted Listings: These tend to be found primarily on online retailers’ websites and feature a sponsored product prominently.
• In-Ad (With Native Element) Units: On the surface, this type of unit appears to be a standard ad. However, within the content itself, it also applies contextual relevance for a publisher in which the ad appears.
• Custom Formats: This variant of ad unit highlights the fact that formats can sometimes, for specific publishers, be one-of-a-kind, meaning it won’t always fit into the other five categories.
In the U.S., IAB operated a similar model.
This February, though, IAB UK gave a first major revision to its guidelines, which were designed to simplify but also strengthen best practices in an area that has continued to see innovation and change.
Understanding The Changes
IAB UK has merged its two sets of guidelines for native and content-based ads, saying the update is in response to market changes like the growth of influencer marketing, the rise of advertising on social and the low barrier-to-entry of self-publishing.
It seems native has grown big enough to encompass many related practices, all of which strive for greater effectiveness and consumer satisfaction by mixing editorial and advertising with appropriate disclosure. This disclosure is important. IAB UK recommends practitioners use visual cues, brand logos or other upfront labeling to make commercial relationships clear.
At the same time that IAB UK was making its update in February, New Zealand’s advertising regulator, also called Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), published its own guidance note governing native advertisers’ legal responsibilities. “Advertisements should be clearly distinguishable as such, whatever their form and whatever the medium used,” it says . It is clear that, like IAB UK, New Zealand is now taking a much broader view of what constitutes as “native advertising.”
That’s because, like IAB UK, the ASA guidance also extends to cover influencers. The new guidelines say that content is defined as an advertisement when a brand has control over the content and must be identified as such. The guidelines also note that it’s important for advertisers to be aware of transparency, especially when an advertiser makes the effort to make an ad more engaging. In the U.S., the FTC is tasked with ensuring that adverts are truthful to consumers across all channels through the FTC Act .
Overall, I’m full-square behind both of these updates to the regulatory environment and also the FTC Act. At ADYOULIKE, from years of operating a native advertising platform, I’ve consistently seen that the advertising format boosts trust and increases engagement from audiences.
For us, mixing editorial and advertising leads to great outcomes for audiences, and in the current climate, it also helps to bolster brand safety. For example, thanks to the nature of programmatic advertising, brands can now know the exact websites their advertisements are on, which boosts brand safety. This is especially pertinent, given the recent controversies around brands’ adverts being placed beside inappropriate content . (The situation has already led Bank of America to hire a brand safety officer to ensure brand integrity is upheld.)
In terms of guidelines, I hope this effort by industry bodies to consistently stay ahead of the curve continues apace. This will ensure we can successfully encourage advertisers and platforms to play by rules that benefit us all.