Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
The Scope of the Code Section III (definitions), subsection k states “An advertorial is an advertisement feature, announcement or promotion, the content of which is controlled by the marketer, not the publisher, that is disseminated in exchange for a payment or other reciprocal arrangement".
This means there is a two stage test for content to be considered an advertorial. The test hinges on the concepts of payment and control. If a payment exists and the claims are not demonstrably subject to the editorial control of the publisher, the ASA would consider that material within its remit. However, if both prongs of the test are not met, the material will not be within remit of the CAP code. The test applies equally to traditional media and online media (including blogs).
“Payment or reciprocal arrangement”
So what is meant by a “payment or reciprocal arrangement”? Money does not necessarily change hands and the payment need not be financial. Sometimes other arrangements could have been made in place of direct payment. For example, a bus company might advertise in a newspaper and in exchange the newspaper might be given space to advertise on the bus-sides. Both communications are subject to the Code. Similarly, a magazine might give a significant amount of editorial space to an advertiser that places an ad in the magazine. Or an ad might be run free of charge if the marketer agrees to pay for an advertisement at a later date.
Control of content
The second stage of the test takes into account the degree of control the marketer exerts over the content of the feature or promotion. A good benchmark is whether the company has final approval of text and any visuals used. For example, a company might give a journalist information that is then used as the basis for an article, or a publication might ask for a fee to reproduce a photograph or cover a story. Neither scenario would make the resulting article an advertisement feature and it would remain outside the remit of the CAP Code. However, if the marketer had control over the content of the article, the result would be an advertisement feature. In another example, a travel journalist might be given an expenses-paid holiday by a travel company in the hope that a favourable article would be written. The resulting article would not be considered an advertisement feature if the company and the journalist had not agreed its content. If it was subject to the company’s approval, the copy would be subject to the Code. If a marketer sends out samples in the hope that people will choose to review them, any resulting copy would not be an advertorial. However, if marketers dictate the copy and provide free goods on that basis, the resulting copy would need to be declared as advertorial. The ASA considered that, because an advertiser paid for space in a newspaper for a column headed “professional brief” and supplied the content for that column, it was an advertisement feature and needed to be declared as such (French Duncan Chartered Accountants, 1 September 2004).
Advertisement features are usually designed to resemble the editorial style of the publication in which they appear and should be prominently headed “Advertisement”, “Advertisement Feature”, “Promotional Feature” or similar to distinguish them from genuine editorial (National Federation of Cypriots, 22 November 2006).
Such signposts also need to be sufficiently prominent. The ASA upheld complaints against an advertisement feature for Flora proactive because the advertorial nature of the online article was unclear. Because the overall impression of the ad was that it was an article written independently by a Telegraph journalist and the wording "in association with Flora pro.activ" appeared to the far right-hand side of the webpage above listings for other cholesterol-related articles, with a line dividing that part of the page from the advertorial, it was not clear that the heading related to the ad (Unilever UK Ltd, 2 November 2011). The ASA ruled that a press advertorial which stated "Column sponsored by Natural Scotland" above the headline made it clear it was a marketing communication and was therefore acceptable (The Scottish Government, 11 April 2012).
Marketers should not assume that readers’ familiarity with ad campaigns in other media will mean that they will automatically distinguish an advertisement feature from editorial content. Even if the advertisement feature appears in a format that is commonly used for advertisement features (such as a newspaper wraparound), marketers should not assume that readers will automatically recognise it as such (British Sky Broadcasting Ltd Sky One, 4 April 2007).
In 2009 the CAP Monitoring team noticed that one national newspaper was routinely publishing what appeared to be full-page features for various products. The top half of the pages were presented as an article containing information about a product, including efficacy claims (which would have been prohibited in advertising). The bottom half of the pages featured an ad that contained information on where that same product could be bought. CAP were concerned that the top half of the page was controlled by the advertiser rather than the publisher and as such should have been identified as an advertorial. Although the publisher argued that they showed the finished text to the advertisers only to check for inaccuracies, and said they were not permitted to alter the text in any way, the ASA noticed that the articles were uniquely favourable to the product featured in the accompanying ad and appeared in the same, or a substantially similar, format on different dates. The ASA concluded that the information presented in the articles complemented and added to the information provided in the ads, and the average reader would have therefore been likely to have understood the entire page to be a feature on the product, no matter the distinct styles of the top and bottom of the pages. They therefore considered that by using that approach, the publisher and advertiser were intentionally attempting to circumvent the Code (Express Newspapers & Goldshield Ltd, 12 August 2009; Express Newspapers & Orthotics Online Ltd, 12 August 2009; and Express Newspapers & LadyCare Lifetime Ltd, 12 August 2009).
The CAP Help Note on Advertisement Features provides detailed guidance on: how to judge whether an article is an advertisement feature (by taking into account payment and other reciprocal arrangements as well as who controls the content); the responsibility for identifying advertisement features and how advertisement features should be identified.
See also “Remit: Social Media”, “Recognising market communications and identifying marketers” and “Remit: Affiliate Marketing”.