There was once a time on the internet when one could freely browse any favorite web page without having to encounter one of what plenty of everyday consumers consider a scourge of modern entertainment consumption: advertising. This through the wonder of ad blocking software, like AdBlock, still a popular extension for many a web browser (including mine).
But web advertising has undergone massive transformation since the early days of blaring, bleating pop ups, and the wonders of ad blocking software don’t get you very far any longer. And if you think historically, it’s something of a return to the way it’s always been. Advertising and media historically have maintained a mutually beneficial if at times antagonistic relationship; and there’s was always an implicit understanding that watching television, reading a newspaper, consuming media involved likewise consuming advertising.
Nowadays, many websites will require the user to disable their ad block software before getting access to content. Television streaming services like Hulu require viewers to watch an ad—sometimes offering viewers a choice—before proceeding to their show. And consumers are beginning to re-learn that with media comes advertising, no matter their preference.
But on the web, the clear boundaries of what is and is not an advertisement continue to grow blurrier. As the New York Times recently pointed out, many marketers have in recent years found social media platforms a desirable way to target streamers and ad blockers— most often the elusive, ephemeral Millennial. But what happens when Kim Kardashian posts about a specific product she says she loves? Was she paid to do so? If she was, is that an ad? And importantly, is it deceptive?
Per the NYT:
Brands such as Jack in the Box and Red Bull have proved willing to pay thousands of dollars per social media mention to people like the Kardashians and other so-called influencers who command big, loyal followings on services like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
These mentions, however, are often presented as testimonials rather than advertisements, a practice that at least one consumer advocacy group has claimed is deceptive. And the Federal Trade Commission has found itself struggling to articulate exactly how these sorts of paid brand endorsements should be handled to ensure that they are identified as ads.
And of course it’s not simply on social platforms that the blurring of lines is seen. Native advertising has become increasingly popular, and it’s a novel way for marketers to reach online audiences. They essentially function much like that of an advertorial in a newspaper or magazine; most often it’s easy enough to spot, but not always.
As brands continue to experiment with new ways to reach their target audiences, it’s important to maintain a clear sense of ethics in what and how we’re getting our messages out there. Deceiving online audiences with new forms of advertising and sponsored content is one way to assure an inherent distrust into the future.
Because remember that this is a frontier still being explored. In the case of the Kardashians in the Times piece, the Federal Trade Commission has yet to establish any “hard and fast rules,” stating simply that “it has to be unambiguous.”
It’s on marketers to help continue experimenting, keep creating, and establishing innovative forms of advertising that’s compelling, creative, and non-deceptive.
Bill Delaney is Content Architect at AKHIA.