More clarity needed as government cracks down on ‘misleading’ content marketing

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is ramping up activity to tackle unclear advertising in online articles and blogs, yet industry experts say more cross-platform clarity is needed to guide brands.

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The CMA has written to 13 marketing companies, 20 businesses and 33 publishers of online articles and blogs, to warn them that helping to arrange or publish advertising or other marketing that is not clearly distinguishable from the opinion of a journalist or blogger may result in them breaking the law.

The decision follows an investigation by the body, which found marketing companies Starcom Mediavest and Tan Media arranged for endorsements in online articles and blogs on behalf of Myjar, a short-term loan provider, without making it clear that they were advertising.

It plans to publish open letters on its website so that all businesses, marketing companies and publishers are able to look at the steps they need to take to comply with consumer protection law.

Earlier this year, the CMA took action against a marketing firm that over the course of 2014 and 2015 had written over 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses across a range of websites.

Nisha Arora, CMA senior director of consumer, says: “Opinions in blogs and other online articles can influence people’s shopping decisions. Failing to identify advertising and other marketing, so that it appears to be the opinion of a journalist or blogger, is unlawful and unacceptable.

“We understand that these are important channels for businesses seeking to promote products and services – but they need to do so in a way that complies with consumer protection law.”

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Content marketing has come under increasing scrutiny over the past year. Spend by brands has been increasing – research from the IAB and PwC found that content and native advertising spend was worth £509m in 2014, accounting for 22% of display ad spend.

However, consumers are growing increasingly suspicious. A study by Nielsen found that trust in advertising in general is on the decline. But trust in editorial content has seen the biggest fall over the past two years, dropping by 8 percentage points to 54% between 2014 and 2015.

Despite the declining trust, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) says the current guidelines are already clear enough.

“As a regulator, we have strict rules in place that are designed to keep ads honest and truthful, which in turn help promote consumer trust. The downward trend in trust doesn’t correlate with an equal rise in the number of problem ads,” says a CAP spokesman.

Richard Armstrong, CEO of content marketing agency Kameleon, believes current problems around content marketing can be attributed to a lack of clarity within the industry as well as untrained staff.

“When it comes to traditional platforms like print and broadcast, there’s a clear process and precedent for working with clients. None of that exists in the digital space.”

Richard Armstrong, CEO, content marketing agency Kameleon

“Often there are young people within agencies making the decisions who are not aware of the legalities. So a lot more can be done, agencies should be educated and guide their clients,” he says.

Michael Brook, group editorial director at content agency Media Blaze, adds that more needs to be done to promote awareness within the industry.

“At the moment you hear of brands breaking the rules on a case by case basis, but it doesn’t feel like that there is a cross-platform rule as such. Due to the sheer amount of volume of content marketing that’s going on across multiple platforms, it seems difficult to police,” he says.

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