"Beware the fine print." It’s an age-old saying that applied to contracts and advertisements in the past. Today it applies to online editorial content as well.
Like everything else in the world of publishing, technology journalism has been convulsed by the Internet. Staid tech magazines are either dead or online only. (PCWorld, for example, a magazine that once had a print circulation of over a million, is now digital only.) But apparently, cutting the costs of printing and distribution isn’t doing enough to keep the bottom line in good shape. And more and more tech websites, along with general interest online publications, are turning to something called "native" or "sponsored" content.
Simply put, native content is pretty similar to what used to be called an "advertorial," or a post written at the behest of an advertiser, but made to look like news, a feature story or a blog. Reputable publications that use sponsored content (CIO.com is one) label it clearly. But outfits with less integrity (ahem, Sports Illustrated) either don’t disclose it, or disclose in such a way that a casual reader could be misled. (Speaking of disclosures, I sometime edit, but never write, sponsored content for a very reputable company. It’s not my favorite gig, but I need to pay the bills.)
The problem: Advertising disguised as editorial product undermines everyone’s trust in the Internet. The issue has been getting a fair amount of media coverage lately – The New York Times columnist David Carr had a good, if a bit hyperbolic, piece this week – and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also noticed. (Even The Times has reportedly considered using native content.)
On Monday, the FTC announced that it will hold a workshop on December 4 about native advertising and the "blurring of digital ads with digital content." The agency notes that: "Increasingly, advertisements that more closely resemble the content in which they are embedded are replacing banner advertisements – graphical images that typically are rectangular in shape – on publishers' websites and mobile applications."
Such workshops are often followed by a period in which the FTC asks for public comment. If it gets that far, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, read the fine print. Always read the fine print.