Let me preface this post with the following disclaimer: I don’t believe in deceptive marketing practices – never have, and never will. That said – the FTC seems to be working overtime for the past few years to clean up the internet – most recently with it’s conference on native advertising.

From the New York Times:

... faced with a growing wave of digital advertising that is intended to look like the news articles and features of the publications where they appear, the commission is warning advertisers that it intends to vigorously enforce its rules against misleading advertising.

I go back and forth with my view on the commission’s vigorous new stance against advertising that looks like news articles, primarily because it seems to be directed only at online publishers. How often do we hear popular morning radio show hosts touting the amazing job the local laser eye center did correcting their vision problems? These ads run during morning shows, typically with no music, or any other indication that what you’re listening to is, in fact, an advertisement, and while the host is admitting that he or she received the service – there’s never any mention of the fact that the eye surgery was provided complimentary in exchange for air time.

This is also against the FTC’s rules: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

Let’s also not forget product placement. While it’s not exactly the same as designing a landing page to look like a news article, it does serve the same purpose – to promote a product or service without letting the viewer know they are being advertised to. Have you ever noticed that an American Idol judge will tap their red Coca Cola cup with their pen instead of clapping for a performer. Bam! You’ve just been pitched on Coke without even realizing it.

The problem with conventional advertising is that we, the audience, are hard-wired to put up a wall the moment we feel we’re being sold something, so marketers will constantly work to get their message across while avoiding that wall at all cost. The FTC’s mission to curtail what it deems as “misleading advertising” is great, but gray area is a dangerous concept.

Unscrupulous internet marketers who push garbage and scams thinly-veiled as informative reviews or news articles are the dregs of our industry without a doubt, however some responsibility MUST fall on the consumer to make informed decisions before they hand over their credit card information. If you truly believe that miracle diet pill will help you lose 30 pounds in a week while you sit around and eat Doritos, then you probably need a hard-earned life lesson more than you need to lose weight.

The FTC can and will continue to police internet marketing tactics – but in my opinion marketers will ALWAYS find a way to get their message past the audience’s protective wall using whatever methods necessary. Perhaps a better solution would be to spend some of the taxpayers hard-earned dollars educating the public, rather than slapping a few black hat marketers on the wrist every time they come up with a new (evil)genius method of promoting their chosen product or service.