A typical model for internet businesses is first to build traffic and then add advertising. You’ll be forced to view a few second’s worth of paid advertising before you can watch popular YouTube clips. Some vloggers, like Zoella, can make a good living by advertising. They also have up to 6 million subscribers. They can earn thousands of pounds every time they mention a particular brand.
The old issue on the new medium
This has been happening with little regulation from advertising watchdogs. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), however, has advised vloggers to clearly state when they have been paid to promote a product in their videos. Vloggers are now required to label their videos with the words “paid for or promoted” and “promoted.” The ASA insists viewers be warned when they see promoted content.
Product placement is not a new concept. However, since the ASA’s digital remit was extended in 2011, it has been forced to look more closely at internet advertising. The ASA tries its best to make sure that editorial and advertising content is always distinguished. This distinction is a key pillar in UK advertising regulations. In light of research that my colleagues and I conducted on product placement, it may be misleading if the viewer is unaware of the commercial intent in the content they are reading or viewing.
Since the advent of digital media, it has become increasingly difficult to separate content from advertising. On the one hand, there’s “native advertising,” which is a form of promotional content that looks like an editorial. Sites will claim that their content is clearly labeled for readers to view, but in reality, the labeling can be so subtle that it is barely noticeable. It is also valuable for brands because it is hidden within non-commercial reporting. The labeling might satisfy regulators, but will it alter the meaning of content if it looks and reads as editorial?
What is the difference between labeling and other forms of advertising? Since 2011, paid-for product placement is allowed on UK TV. Promoted content must have a small logo at the bottom corner of the screen when the program begins. Does this make the advertising more transparent for the average viewer? Does the labeling change our perception of what we’re reading or viewing?
The ASA has a difficult time policing promoted content on the Internet, in particular. It has accused some celebrities of violating advertising regulations. For example, they have included brand mentions within their Tweets. Does this mean Twitterati cannot mention brands on their own? Is the ASA required to censor all tweets for promotional content?
The ASA has strict regulations on paid-for products placed on TV. However, UK TV has had brands in scenes since the 1970s, including the BBC. The brands give their products over to product placement agents, who then supply them to show producers and studio managers for free. The agency takes a fee and provides a realistic scene.
In 2011, the alarm raised by the introduction of paid-for products on UK TV showed that regulators and many others in the UK were unaware of the arrangement. In 2009, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham refused to allow paid-for placements on UK TV when Ofcom consulted about the issue. His successor swiftly reversed Burnham’s decision.
What is the generational divide?
There may be a generational difference in assumptions about promoted content. Young consumers tend to assume that all media content has a promotional element. They also enjoy discovering how brands are trying to trick them. When researching product placements on UK TV, my colleagues and I found that The younger generation is more cautious.
Do they and we need a regulator who will nanny us both? Should the regulator acknowledge that the new generation of consumers is media-literate enough to judge the credibility of brand content?
Regulators face a big challenge in policing promoted content. Media brands and advertisers are under pressure to monetize content while not disrupting consumers’ online experiences. Labeling branded content is a good way to apply the principle of separation between editorial and advertising. However, it could be a less effective solution than you think.