The organization that oversees advertising practices in Canada issued a cautionary note on Wednesday about ads that disguise themselves as articles in the media – a technique associated with what's known as branded or sponsored content, or native advertising.
The reminder about this type of ad came in the annual summary of complaints that Canadians made to Advertising Standards Canada, the industry's self-regulatory body.
In the report, ASC included information on cases that violated the clause prohibiting "disguised advertising techniques" in the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
In one case, an unnamed newspaper in British Columbia ran an article about "a controversial public issue" on the same page as an ad for an advocacy group. As it turned out, the advertiser also had editorial control over the content of the article, which it developed in collaboration with the newspaper – but that was not clearly indicated. The panel reviewing the case found that it "concealed its commercial intent."
(The anonymity occurs when advertisers make changes to their ads based on ASC findings, or commit to changing their behaviour in the future.)
Another case involved an article on health in an unnamed Quebec newspaper. That article, which was sponsored content, mentioned the name of a product, and an ad for that product appeared alongside the piece. While the article was labelled as a "specialized publication," the reviewers found that the term was not clear enough to inform readers that it was advertising.
While Clause 2, which covers "disguised" techniques, is not the one that draws the most complaints, the fact that ASC chose to highlight the issue is timely. In recent years, "native advertising" has come to be seen as a solution for media companies hobbled by falling print ad revenue and the relatively minuscule prices they can charge for digital ads. "Content," however, is considered more likely to get the attention of people who might otherwise ignore an ad, and this type of ad can be sold at a premium. However, some have raised concerns about the ethics of ads that are not clearly labelled and could be mistaken for editorial content.
And complaints under Clause 2 have jumped: in 2012 there was just one complaint under the clause; in 2013 there were 10, and this year there were 13.
In a study conducted by ASC in November, 68 per cent of people surveyed said they would be "very bothered" to find out that an editorial feature turned out to be an ad.
The Globe and Mail does some native advertising, and labels such articles as "sponsored content."
The ASC refers ads to councils to be reviewed based on consumer complaints only – so the report gives a picture not just of the advertising that is going against the rules, but also the ads that offend Canadians enough to push them to complain.
The most frequent complaints concerned accuracy and clarity, and price claims: 467 complaints came in last year on that subject, and 28 were found to have contravened the Code.
Companies whose advertisements were found faulty under accuracy and clarity from January, 2014, until now included Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., Hudson's Bay Co., and Lasik MD.
The next biggest offender was "unacceptable depictions and portrayals," which attracted 355 complaints, 42 of which were found at fault.
Advertisers who contravened this clause included American Apparel for ads that were "disparaging to women," and an unnamed home builder that pulled an ad featuring a woman wearing a "sexy maid's outfit" with details about "the various household duties she was expected to perform."
People complained about TV ads most frequently, followed by digital. By industry, retail attracted the most complaints, followed by leisure services, "noncommercial" ads, and food.
Here is how this year's complaints break down:
– 1,274 complaints submitted (down 0.9 per cent from last year)
– Of those, 135 were forwarded to councils because upon review, it was found that they may have broken a rule under the advertising code (councils are a combination of industry representatives and consumers who, together, adjudicate complaints)
– 80 complaints were upheld
– 864 advertisements were the subject of complaints
– 36 advertisements had complaints against them upheld