Disclosures that are necessary to avoid misleading consumers must be presented clearly and prominently. Whether a disclosure of a native ad’s commercial nature meets this standard will be measured by its performance – that is, do consumers recognize the native ad as an ad? Only disclosures that consumers notice, process, and understand can be effective. Inadequate disclosures can’t change the net impression created and won’t stop consumers from being deceived that advertising or promotional messages are something other than ads.
The FTC staff business guidance document Dotcom Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising explains what advertisers should do to ensure disclosures in digital advertising are clear and prominent. In general, disclosures should be:
- In clear and unambiguous language;
- As close as possible to the native ads to which they relate;
- In a font and color that’s easy to read;
- In a shade that stands out against the background;
- For video ads, on the screen long enough to be noticed, read, and understood; and
- For audio disclosures, read at a cadence that’s easy for consumers to follow and in words consumers will understand
Disclosures must be clear and prominent on all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view native ads. In assessing effectiveness, disclosures should be considered from the perspective of a reasonable consumer. When ads are targeted to a specific audience, the relevant perspective is that of a reasonable or ordinary member of the targeted group. Advertisers should improve their disclosures if there are indications that a significant minority of reasonable consumers do not notice, process, or comprehend them.
Advertisers have flexibility as to how to identify native ads as ads, so long as consumers notice and process the disclosures and comprehend what they mean. Some native ads use text labels or company logos combined with other visual cues, such as background shading, outlines, or borders. Multimedia ads, such as online videos, may use graphics, video or audio disclosures, or some combination thereof. The following discussion describes additional information that advertisers should consider to make clear and prominent disclosures in native advertising on the main page of a publisher site and on the click- or tap-into page on which a complete ad appears.
Proximity and Placement Guidelines
- Place disclosures on the main page of a publisher site: Advertisers should assume that consumers don’t look at everything on a publisher site. In deciding which content items to read or watch, consumers’ attention is likely to be drawn to certain focal points on a screen. The disclosure that an ad is commercial content should appear near the ad’s focal point. When browsing the main page of news or content aggregator sites, consumers typically look at story headlines on the site. Placing disclosures near a native ad’s headline increases the likelihood consumers will see them.
- Place disclosures in front of or above the headline of the native ad: The location and spacing of a disclosure in relation to the native ad it clarifies also matters. If a publisher site is read left to right, consumers are less likely to notice disclosures positioned to the right of the native ads to which they relate. In addition, if native ads are inserted into a vertical stream of content items, placing a disclosure below a native ad increases the risk that consumers will click on the ad without seeing the disclosure. Consumers are most likely to notice and understand disclosures that are placed immediately in front of or above a native ad’s headline.
- If a native ad’s focal point is an image or graphic, a disclosure might need to appear directly on the focal point itself: Sometimes a focal point on a publisher site is something other than a headline or other written text – for example, images or graphics. Disclosures placed near focal points that are images, graphics, or other visually strong elements might not be sufficiently noticeable to consumers and disclosures might need to be placed on the focal points themselves. For example, in deciding which videos to watch on a video-sharing channel, consumers might pay little attention to written descriptions and instead look at thumbnail images of the videos. Under those circumstances, a disclosure placed directly on the thumbnail image itself is most likely to be effective.
- A single disclosure that relates to more than one native ad should be accompanied by visual cues that make it clear the disclosure applies to each ad in the grouping: Some disclosures may relate to more than one content item, such as with content recommendation widgets included on a publisher site. If a grouping of content items contains a mix of advertising and non-advertising content, a single disclosure should not be used because consumers are not likely to know to which content items the disclosure relates. In those circumstances, native ads should be individually labeled to make clear which content items are ads. In addition, if a single disclosure is used to differentiate more than one native ad as advertising, other visual cues are necessary to make it obvious to consumers that the disclosure relates to each of the native ads in the grouping, such as through background shading that has a clear outline or a distinct border that sets off the native ads from other content items on a site.
- Disclosures should remain when native ads are republished by others: Advertisers should maintain disclosures when native ads are republished by others in non-paid search results, social media, email, or other media. In non-paid search results, consumers are more likely to notice a disclosure if it’s placed at the beginning of the title tag for a native ad’s search listing. Similarly, URL links for posting or sharing in social media or email should include a disclosure at the beginning of the native ad’s URL. In some circumstances, native ads for republishing in other media may include other distracting elements such as webpage snippets, images, or graphics. In placing disclosures, advertisers also should consider how these additional visual elements might influence where consumers look before they click on native ads.
- Once consumers arrive on the click- or tap-into page where the complete native ad appears, disclosures should be placed as close as possible to where they will look first: Because consumers can navigate to native ads in different ways, a clear and prominent disclosure also should be presented on the click- or tap-into page on which a complete native ad appears. A disclosure is more likely to be seen if it’s placed where consumers ordinarily start looking on a page. For articles, consumers typically look first at the headline and then browse the content. Disclosures therefore should be placed as close as possible to the headline. In placing disclosures, advertisers also should avoid putting them far above or to the right of the headline, where consumers are unlikely to notice them.
- In multimedia ads, a disclosure should be delivered to consumers before they receive the advertising message to which it relates: With multimedia ads, disclosures generally should be made in the ad itself and shortly before consumers receive an advertising message. Delivering disclosures during or after an advertising message increases the risk consumers will miss the necessary disclosure. But making disclosures too early can be problematic, too. Some native ads may be only a small part of larger programming – for example, a video vignette or video game. In that case, a disclosure at the beginning of programming may not effectively communicate to consumers that the later content is an advertising message. In those circumstances, disclosures should be delivered as close as possible to the advertising messages they cover.
Advertising disclosures should stand out so consumers can easily read or hear them.
Advertising disclosures should stand out. Disclosures should be large and visible enough for consumers to readily notice them. Therefore, advertisers should take into account the size and configuration of the device screens consumers will typically use to view their content. Text labels should be in a font size and color that consumers can easily read on the screen. To be readable, text color should contrast strongly with the background. Using lighter font colors with a dark background makes it less likely consumers will read the text of a disclosure.
Any background shading used to differentiate native ads from non-advertising content should be sufficiently saturated for consumers to notice it. Advertisers also should consider using visual cues in addition to background shading, such as a prominent border that sets off native ads from surrounding content, in case consumers cannot see color differences.
Multimedia ads that deliver an audio message may require an audio disclosure. Audio disclosures should be in a sufficient volume and cadence for ordinary consumers to hear and comprehend them. In addition, visual disclosures in multimedia ads should be displayed on the screen long enough for ordinary consumers to notice, read, and comprehend them.
Disclosures must be understandable.
Disclosures are not effective unless consumers understand them to mean that native ads are commercial advertising. Disclosures should be in plain language that is as straightforward as possible. An advertiser also should make disclosures in the same language as the predominant language in which the ad is presented. Advertisers should avoid using:
- Technical or industry jargon;
- Different terminology to mean the same thing in different places on a publisher site;
- The same terminology to mean different things on a publisher site;
- Terms that customarily have different meanings to consumers in other situations;
- Unfamiliar icons or abbreviations; or
- Company logos or brand names unaccompanied by a clear text disclosure.
Terms likely to be understood include “Ad,” “Advertisement,” “Paid Advertisement,” “Sponsored Advertising Content,” or some variation thereof. Advertisers should not use terms such as “Promoted” or “Promoted Stories,” which in this context are at best ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site. Furthermore, depending on the context, consumers reasonably may interpret other terms, such as “Presented by [X],” “Brought to You by [X],” “Promoted by [X],” or “Sponsored by [X]” to mean that a sponsoring advertiser funded or “underwrote” but did not create or influence the content.
In addition, terms might not be sufficiently clear to consumers if used on a publisher site that also uses different terms to label ads. Using consistent terminology to identify ads on the same publisher site decreases the likelihood that consumers will misunderstand a native ad’s disclosure. Moreover,