Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published on September 2, 2014, courtesy of iMedia Connection’s Blog. It is repurposed with permission.
In this five part series, originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of the Media Law Resource Center Bulletin, we take an in-depth look at the native advertising phenomenon and the legal issues surrounding the practice. After canvassing the many faces of native advertising and the applicable law, the series ultimately examines the pervasive assumption that all native advertising is, and should be regulated as, “commercial speech.” This assumption presumes that all native advertising is equal under the eyes of the law, and we come to the conclusion that it probably isn’t. Native advertising that is closer to pure content than pure commercial speech may deserve greater or even full First Amendment protection, which would carry significant implications for government regulation.
Part 1 below provides an overview of the series and introduces the concept and practice of native advertising.
— PART I —
Overview of the Five Part Series
Last December, the Federal Trade Commission held a workshop entitled “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content” to address the latest and greatest darling of the digital media advertising world – Native Advertising, otherwise known as sponsored content, sponsor generated content, branded content, brand journalism, or some would say, the less flattering infomercial or advertorial. The FTC Workshop capped a year where Native Advertising moved to the forefront of the publishing and advertising industries and the FTC. On its surface, much of the debate at the FTC Workshop and elsewhere centers on deception, namely whether consumers can distinguish between paid ads and editorial content. As FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez put it: “while native advertising may bring some benefits to consumers, it has to be done lawfully…by presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively that information comes from a non-biased source.” This may hold true for certain forms of native advertising but maybe not for all. As the FTC Workshop industry panelists explained, native advertising covers a broad range of material, from in feed ads for products, to editorial content that may not even reference a product or a brand. To a certain extent, the native advertising regulation discussion presumes that all native advertising constitutes commercial speech under the First Amendment. However, whether native is classified as “commercial” is a profound legal determination as commercial speech is traditionally subject to less First Amendment protection and more regulation than other forms of more protected speech. The current debate therefore begs the underlying constitutional question—is all native advertising actually commercial speech?