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Contextually targeted branded content

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 CAP Copy Advice team often receive enquiries about contextually targeted branded content, often referred to as “native” advertising.  This approach goes beyond targeting consumers with ads which are relevant to the editorial they are viewing (for example, serving a banner ad for a car to someone reading an article about motoring) and seeks to provide content generated by brands which doesn’t look out of place in the habitat within which it’s being viewed.

This context driven approach isn’t a problem in and of itself, but marketers must be cautious that in seeking to make ads more inviting they do not camouflage advertisements. Section 2 of the CAP Code deals with the recognition of marketing communications (i.e. ensuring people know when they are looking at an ad) and these rules apply regardless of the targeting or medium. The following guidance highlights the key issues to consider when creating contextually targeted branded content in its various forms.

Ensure advertorials are distinguishable from editorial content

Whilst an ad may look “at home” within editorial content it must not appear to be editorial content when it is not.  The ASA has upheld complaints against online advertorials which did not make their nature clear (Unilever UK Ltd, 2 November 2011).  

If it’s not otherwise clear from the context, headings such as “Advertisement Feature”, “Promotional Feature” or similar are likely to be acceptable ways of labelling advertorials. A website which stated "The page that you are currently reading is an ad feature" in a prominent banner at the top of the page was considered recognisable as a marketing communication (Marcândi Ltd t/a MadBid, 19 March 2014).

Please see our detailed guidance on ‘Advertisement features’ for more information on determining when content is advertorial.

Do not integrate to such an extent that it is no longer identifiable as an ad

Contextually targeted branded content is not limited to advertorial style materials. It may include links to other websites; for example, where content aggregators serve similar content to readers under a heading such as “from around the web” or “you may also like these” and the advertisers have paid to be featured.  Where the context does not make the nature of the links clear, labelling is likely to be necessary.

The ASA investigated whether or not a panel appearing at the foot of an article on a newspaper’s website headed "You may also like these", and featuring various paid for links to content, made clear that the links were ads.  It ruled that the heading and the footer "Recommended by", were insufficient to ensure it was obvious to consumers that the links were marketing communications because they might not notice the footer or realise that the logo which followed included a link to further information, the further information was also considered to be insufficient, and so the ad breached the Code (Outbrain Inc, 18 June 2014).  

In that ruling, the ASA understood the advertiser to be the company which provided the aggregated content.  Depending on the circumstances, it may be the case in other scenarios that the publisher, and/or the company whose ad is served, are considered advertisers for the purposes of the ruling.

In early 2014 the Industry Advisory Panel (IAP) considered what would be appropriate labelling for such links to ensure they were obviously identifiable as marketing communications. The IAP suggested “paid for ad”, “ad” or “ad link” and that the label would need to be placed near the “more from around the web” headline.

Be wary of terms such as “sponsorship” and “in association with”

For a brief period in 2013, this advice article suggested that “sponsored content” might be an acceptable label.  However, after seeking an expert view from the IAP it was considered that because sponsorship is not covered by the CAP Code and “sponsored content” could be interpreted by consumers as referring to a traditional sponsorship relationship, where material has been financially sponsored but over which the creator retains editorial control, that it would be an inappropriate label. This has since been borne out by ASA rulings.

Using terms such as “sponsorship”, “sponsored content” and “in association with” to describe an ad feature is unlikely to be acceptable. Following an ASA challenge, the ASA ruled against an ad that was included in a “sponsored section” of a website and labelled as “in association with”, considering that the labels in themselves did not make clear the commercial nature of the content (Michelin Tyre plc and Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 30 December 2015). Other labels that have been ruled insufficient include “Brand Publisher” and "Thanks to [brand] for making this possible" (Henkel Ltd, 13 January 2016; Mondelez UK Ltd, 26 November 2014).

Because the phrase “native advertising” has been used to describe a variety of scenarios, it’s probably worth pointing out that if a brand sponsors an event which is newsworthy and journalists decide to write about it of their own accord, this is genuine editorial rather than advertising covered by the CAP Code.

CAP recommends that marketers think about whether advertorial is distinguishable from editorial, or an ad is obviously recognisable as such from the start.  Please contact the Copy Advice team if you have concerns regarding an approach.

Updated 5 December 2016

See also, 'CAP Panels', ‘Advertisement features’, ‘Video blogs: Scenarios’ & ‘Video blogs: Advertising features’.

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