The Federal Trade Commission is going to hold a workshop this December to discuss sponsored content and other types of native advertising in digital media, and they are likely to strengthen existing guidelines following the meeting, reports Kate Tummarello from The Hill.

FTC

Sponsored content has been around for ages, traditionally taking the form of advertisements in newspapers that look like articles, except for the title ‘Advertorial’ at the top. But digital sponsored content became news when The Atlantic ran an ad espousing the virtues of the Church of Scientology, and then almost immediately took it down under pressure.

The Atlantic’s Scientology ad was upsetting

All ads are meant to attract attention, but native advertising attempts to get past our personal filters. By looking like an article, tweet, or blog post that we might want to read at a site that we trust, readers start with their defenses down instead of approaching the content with the skepticism that advertising deserves. The Atlantic’s Scientology ad was so upsetting because it pushed the boundary between advertising and outright propaganda.

“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,” the FTC wrote in its announcement of the upcoming workshop. “The workshop will […] explore changes in how paid messages are presented to consumers and consumers’ recognition and understanding of these messages.”

Online media companies are struggling to make money, either through advertising or subscriptions, and the temptation for a well-respected but cash-strapped organization to lease its good name is high, as The Atlantic debacle shows (though it’s worth remembering that the final decision is probably not up to the editors and journalists who built that reputation).

FTC has given out non-binding guidelines

The main issue is the last point: consumers’ recognition that they are looking at something that has been paid for and placed by a third party. Right now, the FTC has given out non-binding guidelines, like writing the word AD in sponsored tweets, but expect those guidelines to become more explicit and binding in the near future. The FTC may not work everything out at the December 4th workshop, but as sponsored content becomes more common it also becomes more important to protect consumers from outright deception.