Native Ad Transparency Report Draws Attention

You probably have not heard of the Online Trust Alliance before last week. That’s when it released its controversial Native Advertising Transparency Report. This report, which analyzed the top 100 online ad-supported sites and sought input from the FTC and several industry trade associations before release, found that in most instances native advertising units fail the test of transparency. They are intentionally vague about what they are.


The report found that native advertising was indeed growing exponentially, and on the verge of going programmatic (sites like Outbrain, Taboola, and Newsmax are already there). That happened when people started downloading ad blockers. Ad blockers don’t typically block native, although they’re catching on.

The OTA says,

combined with the impact of online tracking, privacy, security and other issues, concerns are being raised by consumer advocates and regulators worldwide. The key question being asked is, can consumers using a range of devices easily discern and identify native content, and understand the editorial is not controlled by the site they are visiting?

The tension is that, by design, native ads are intended to “blend” in with the page having a similarity to the news, feature articles, product reviews, entertainment, and other material that surrounds it. Within the ad industry, native definitions vary and the term is used in  several different contexts.

With a goal of promoting self-regulation before outside regulators like the FTC go too far, OTA developed a framework for the assessment that took into account what it calls the “3 Ds”of digital transparency:  discoverability, disclosure, and delineation. (my own disclosure: I worked on the report as a member of the Ad Integrity Working Committee of OTA on behalf of ZEDO).

The call to action for the industry is that 69% of online publishers have native ads on their home pages, and 71% of those ads failed the OTA assessment.

The ads that passed all used the terms “paid” or “paid advertising,” “sponsored by,” or “brought to you by” and clearly announced the name of the brand. That’s the Disclosure piece. The failing ads used terms like “special coverage,” or “suggested,” or “recommended.”

The passing ads also tended to be shaded or in another color than the editorial content on the page, so readers can truly  see that there’s a difference between the surrounding content and the ad. A different font also helps delineate an ad. And if there are six sponsored ads in a column, or at the bottom of the page, each one of them should be separately delineated as an ad.

There are also questions about where the disclosure that the piece of content is an ad should be. Right now, there’s no standard, and the disclosure is sometimes at the top right, sometimes at the bottom. The brand logo of the presenting brand should be visible also.

The study concluded that the native landscape lacks transparency, with wide variations in disclosure, delineating, and discoverability. Indeed, there isn’t even a generally agreed upon definition of native advertising. The range of transparency goes from clear to confusing to actually misleading, and of course it erodes consumer trust. So the industry must adopt principles and respect the consumer experience and maximize transparency.

There are many good suggestions in the report. But like all reports, it finally concludes that a multi-stakeholder working group should be convened to come up with an acceptable code of conduct. I hope that doesn’t mean nothing will come of it.