Ad watchdog comes down hard on native ads in ‘precedent setting’ ban

The advertising watchdog has made a “precedent setting” ruling against the promotional content recommendation platform Outbrain, which could set the bar for how contextually-based advertising, often referred to as native advertising, is labelled on the web to prevent consumers confusion over whether content is an editorial article or a paid-for ad.

Outbrain Independent
Outbrain ad that appeared on the Independent website banned by Advertising Standards Authority in ‘test case’ ruling that will see all future Outbrain native ads more clearly labelled.

Outbrain works with publishers including the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, CNN and Reuters to place paid-for content recommendations from other publishers and brands most often found at the foot of articles, which contain the same look and feel of the website but are tagged as “more from the web” or “we recommend”. Competitors to Outbrain include Taboola, ContentClick and nRelate.

One such ad appeared on the Independent’s website, under the heading “you may also like these” linking to an article entitled “Keep Your email Private!”. It drew a complaint challenging whether the “recommendations” were clearly identifiable as advertising.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) acknowledged that the ad also appeared next to Outbrain’s logo which, if clicked, linked to information which gave information about the company and stated that links to third party content were paid for by its customers.

However, it ruled that that the ad was misleading because it did not make it clear enough that it was a marketing communication. The ASA has told Outbrain to ensure any future advertising was clearly identifiable.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which writes the advertising rules on behalf of the ASA, has deemed today’s (18 June) Outbrain adjudication a “test case”, which means it could have far-reaching implications on how native advertising is displayed on the web to provide more clarity for consumers. However, publishers and advertisers may be concerned that such overt labelling of native advertising as “sponsored” or “promoted” could have a negative impact on how consumers engage with that content.

In response to today’s adjudication, CAP has posted an update to its “advice online entry” on contextually targeted branded content, reiterating that signposts are necessary if a marketing communication is not obviously identifiable by its presentation.

A spokesman for the ASA told Marketing Week today’s adjudication could prove as pivotal as the landmark first ever UK ban on a Twitter campaign in 2012, in which Nike’s brand ambassadors Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere tweeted using the #makeitcount hashtag. It was banned by the ad watchdog for failing to make clear the tweets were marketing communications and prompted a shift from brands into making full disclosures on whether tweets are promotional, using hashtags such as #spon.

Outbrain’s response

Outbrain told Marketing Week it is now in the process of changing labelling such as “you may also like these” to “Promoted Stories” and that the words “Promoted” or “Sponsored” will also appear on or near each Outbrain surfaced paid link across its portfolio of partner websites. In addition, the inclusion of “recommended by” next to a picture of Outbrain’s logo on its ads will be amended to spell out the full company name and will be underlined.

A spokeswoman adds: “Outbrain has always worked within best practice guidelines on this issue – not just in the UK, but in every territory it works in. Content discovery is still a relative newcomer when compared to traditional web advertising, so the situation is fluid and there is still a great deal of discussion to be had about labelling and disclosure. We feel that we lead the market in terms of clear labelling and providing quality content that will be of genuine interest to consumers.”

Outbrain says it will continue to work with industry bodies such as the IAB, the Federal Trade Commission in the US and publishers such as Twitter, the Guardian and Buzzfeed in an attempt to establish a best practice framework for paid-for content recommendation it hopes will be established widely.

Indeed, in April the IAB’s content and native advertising working group released a set of “base line” standard definitions for native advertising in an attempt to provide better clarity about how to display and measure such branded content.