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March 12, 2018

Blurred Lines: Can Readers Distinguish Ads from Content?

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:08 am

Some websites, even very reputable ones, sometimes blur the distinction between editorial content and advertising. Of course, consumers have a right to know what they are reading is an advertisement when that is the case.

To that end, the Federal Trade Commission has created advertising guidelines for websites that use ads that look like the surrounding non-advertising content (“native advertising”). It encourages them to make clear disclosure to distinguish advertising content from regular new stories or natural search results. But are those disclosures really working? To find out, the FTC just published a study where Internet surfers were exposed to various webpages and asked to identify the advertising, if any, on those pages. The FTC also modified those real pages with simple changes it thought might better identify sections that really were advertisements.

Here is a sample Google Shopping results webpage when searching for computer tablets, and an FTC-modified version of it better highlighting the advertising on it:

Google Shopping FTC

Google only inconspicuously disclosed on the top right of the results page that the links listed have been paid for by the sellers (“Merchant links are sponsored.”) [Note: We’ve added the red arrows.]

The second image reflected a minor modification by the FTC putting the word “Ad” right before each link along with an information bubble explaining that.

The FTC found that few viewers even noticed Google’s disclosure in the upper right corner. In the modified version, the word “Ad” stood out much more clearly.

Here is another example of tweaks made to advertising that appeared at Time.com in their mobile version:

time.com FTC

In the original Time version, the two “Around the Web” stories are paid placements with poor disclosure (“sponsored content”) in small type. The FTC’s version made clear this was “paid content” by centering that disclosure above the two stories and adding the word “Ad” under the one on the left which was an advertisement.

Although the FTC study (“Blurred Lines: An Exploration of Consumers’ Advertising Recognition“) was limited, some generalizations can be drawn from the results:

Using some of the common sense disclosure techniques … can greatly increase the likelihood that consumers will recognize an ad as an ad. Minor modifications, including changes to disclosure language, position, text size and color, and to other visual cues such as the borders around or background shadings of ads or ad groupings, can in combination substantially increase the likelihood that a consumer recognizes an ad as an ad and reduce the potential for consumers to be misled as to the commercial nature of paid search and native ads.

Websites could easily make changes like these with minimal effort. The question is, will they?

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  1. Google shopping is 100% sponsored results anyway. The fine print disclosure is at the bottom: “Google is compensated by these merchants. Payment is one of several factors used to rank these results. Tax and shipping costs are estimates.” I imagine they’d have to provide big “sponsored” tags on each link to Google Shopping from their other sites. Honestly, though, I use it all the time despite knowing all this. It’s very convenient.

    Comment by BZ — March 12, 2018 @ 10:00 am
  2. As long as the FTC “encourages” companies and does not force companies, no they will not make the changes because they have no incentive to. The more people that believe the ads are real, the more likely they will click on the link and thus the more ad revenue they generate.

    A similar trend that I cannot stand are fake news reports that are actually radio or TV ads. Then again, some of the real news reports these days are compensated ads too.

    Comment by Joe — March 12, 2018 @ 11:21 am
  3. Advertisers try to make advertisements seem as natural as possible, so I doubt there will be much movement towards differentiation of ads from editorial content if consumers aren’t already in an uproar about it.

    Comment by Wayne — March 12, 2018 @ 2:12 pm
  4. More evidence that these sites don’t want users to know they are ads is that the “Mouse Print” disclaimers are not only small and located away from the ads themselves is that they are in 50% grey type which is much more difficult to notice.

    Comment by Kevin Hisel — March 12, 2018 @ 8:24 pm
  5. Just use an ‘adblocker’!

    Comment by Gert — March 13, 2018 @ 3:49 pm
  6. We have stopped watching our local 5pm news in Houston because this has gotten so obviously blatant. As if we don’t already have enough commercials.

    Comment by Holly — March 13, 2018 @ 10:02 pm
  7. FTC: Your ads look like native content and visitors can’t tell that they are ads.
    Web Site: No duh!

    Comment by Marc K — March 17, 2018 @ 12:03 pm
  8. i was just looking up electric range ratings and see nothing has changed at google. still says sponsored in light gray at top while all else is in bold black.

    oh and who believes the radio host actually use what they promote. sleep number bed is apparently choice of beds by most morning radio hosts who all seem to have a problem sleeping.

    guess they think listeners are stupid.

    Comment by rich w — March 18, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

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