December 17th, 2006

Let’s Try This Again: If It’s Not CRYSTAL CLEAR That Something Is An Ad, It’s DECEPTION

by

PayPerPost finally caved under pressure from the FTC and every blogger with an ounce of ethics — they now require “some” form of disclosure, which can include a “site” disclosure, i.e. you can bury a link to your “disclosure” in your sidebar. I was a bit dismayed to see that some of those who have been critical of PayPerPost also seem to have caved a bit (with all due respect) in responding to this latest misdirection:

Mike Arrington: Still, it is a big move in the right direction.
Scoble: Oh, well, PayPerPost just gave a nice listening gesture and that’s why they are getting the tip of the hat from me and Mike.
Mathew Ingram: As Mike notes, it isn’t a perfect solution, since bloggers can choose to have a site-wide disclosure policy rather than disclosing which specific posts are paid for, but it is a whole lot better than nothing.

While I appreciate the impulse to credit apparent good intentions, deceptive advertising is like pregnancy — it’s not a matter of degrees. If I’m reading something and I can’t tell it was paid for because the disclosure is buried on another page — THAT’S STILL DECEPTION! This may be a “step in the right direction,” but the reality is in many cases it WON’T be better than nothing. The litmus test is NOT whether you’ve posted a disclosure policy — the test is whether someone reading a paid blog post knows beyond any doubt that the post was paid. Sorry, but I just don’t see any shades of gray here.

All advertising walks a fine line — much of what we consider acceptable advertising practices do at the end of the day deceive some people. Many ads are recognizable as ads because we’re accustomed to the formats (e.g. 30 second TV spot, full-page magazine ad), not because the disclosure is clear.

Even Google, which worships at the feet of the user experience, likely crossed the deception line for some users when it change its advertising format from this:

Old Google Ads

To this:

New Google Ads

(Via Matt Cutts)

What jumped out at me from PayPerPost’s press release was this shot across the bow of the affiliate marketers:

As part of this announcement, we invite a competing and even larger part of the WOM marketing industry, affiliate marketers, to join PayPerPost in mandating full disclosure. Mary Engle, FTC director of advertising practices, recently stated “the FTC examines a number of criteria in deciding whether to bring a case against a marketer but usually looks more closely at actions that lead consumers to make purchase decisions. Some word-of-mouth marketing is focused on getting consumers to visit websites rather than to make immediate purchases.” Given that affiliate programs, regardless of FTC disclosure adherence, specifically reward bloggers for driving immediate purchases, affiliate marketers are encouraged to mandate disclosure, or embrace WOM marketplaces like PayPerPost that deliver the highest online marketing ROI with less risk of future FTC scrutiny.

Although PayPerPost has been the whipping boy for this issue, you can be sure that with all of the hopes and dreams of the media/technology industry pinned on advertising, it’s only going to get bigger.

  • I agree, if it isn't clear it is wrong. It is much more difficult to sell when you are perfectly clear, but once your visitors become familiar with your reputation then clear is what they demand and appreciate. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction or review and sales pitch. But to survive long term, the clarity must prevail.

  • Thanks for loading the original image. Besides the border, the original image makes it a little more clear that those ads are over on the right-hand side of the page.

  • We just conducted an interview covering some of these issues with Mary Engle of the FTC at the recent WOMMA Summit 2.

    See the video here:
    http://www.cobrandit.com/blog/...

  • Matt, I put up your original image -- while the shadding for the ads above the organic results is certainly helpful, I don't think a lightly colored, one pixel line makes up for the loss of the shaded boxes on the right -- especially since the ads are now formated to look EXACTLY the same as the organic results.

  • Hold on, you took my Google ads image and trimmed out the border that separates the search results from the ads.

    I agree with you about PPP though. From Google's perspective, paid posts should include machine-readable disclosure in the form of nofollow attributes on paid hyperlinks.

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