Is this story a fake? 5 ways you can tell

Nenetus/Shutterstock
Nenetus/Shutterstock
Not a day seems to go by that I don’t receive an email that commends me for my “well-written” site and asks, “Do you accept sponsored content and if so, how much you charge?”

These blind queries — they’re so generic that they can’t even bring themselves to address me by name or say which site I write for — are being sent by companies trying to place what’s called “native” advertising online.

Here’s what you need to know about native content: They’re ads masquerading as objective stories. And the practice has become so worrisome that the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates this form of advertising, recently held a workshop to discuss the problem.

But what, exactly, is the problem?

You’re being fooled by these ads. It’s not just you; they’re duping search engines like Google by blurring the line between credible editorial content and advertising.

Full disclosure: I have some skin in this game. I’ve dabbled in creating and publishing “native” content in the past, and have very serious misgivings about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the practice of making ads look like a story, no matter how well disclosed, is bad for readers and bad for journalism, because it’s lying.

If you’re saying to yourself: “So what?” then you’re in the majority. Where’s the consumer harm?

Well, imagine if all the ads disappeared from your favorite newspaper or magazine, and instead, companies were allowed to file stories that looked virtually identical to the other articles. Imagine if your favorite search engine couldn’t tell the difference between the legit story and the one placed by a company.

Now, imagine how this shift would affect your purchasing decisions. That flattering car review might steer you in the direction of buying a new vehicle. The glowing write-up of a credit card might lead you to switch cards. The over-the-top hotel review could sway you into booking a vacation.

Native advertising has infested American journalism. One study says blogs derive fully one-third of their revenue from native ads. This year, publishers will earn an estimated $2.85 billion from this type of duplicitous content, more than double the amount earned in 2012.

But here’s how you can tell if you’re reading an ad masquerading as a story:

Look for superlatives. Most native content is remarkably unsophisticated, because it must be approved by the client, the advertiser. These marketers waste no opportunity to describe their products in the most flattering terms. What’s more, they do you a huge favor by inserting hyperlinks at the description in order to game Google’s search algorithm. So, if you see a mention of a “best beach resort” or “top credit card” and there’s a hyperlink, chances are you’re looking at a native ad. Click away!

No negatives. Since it’s advertising, chances are you won’t see anything negative. Competitors, if mentioned at all, will be described in generic terms. The product being hawked will be framed in an entirely positive way. Marketers can’t bring themselves to say anything remotely bad, so you’ll get the impression that absolutely nothing can go wrong when you sign up for that high-interest credit card. But oh, it can.

Little disclaimers. True, the FTC requires that sponsored content carry a disclaimer, but those warnings are fairly easy to hide online. If you look closely, you can see the “sponsored content” tag. When you do, treat the story as if it’s an ad. (Your search engine probably isn’t.)

A call to action. Native ads just can’t help themselves. Even if they manage to avoid superlatives, hide the disclaimers and use negatives (I’ll tell you how they do that in a minute) they must include a call to action. Why? Because the success of a native ad campaign depends on conversions, or ensuring that you buy a product. How else can they prove their little lie had its intended effect? Look for an obvious altar call: try now, buy now, or something similar. The most sophisticated campaigns don’t wait until the bottom of the story to rope you in. When you see the call, you’ll know what you’re reading.

Affiliate links, please. Some of the most impressive native advertising efforts don’t involve mainstream media outlets, but blogs. They manage to create compelling and credible content designed for the sole purpose of either pushing readers to buy a product or adding more search-engine juice. In my experience, the endgame is convincing you to sign up for a co-branded credit card that lets you collect loyalty points. They’re the free-radicals of the native advertising world, because they look and act like real journalism. In some cases, they may even offer useful tips to readers. But make no mistake. These blogs are there for one purpose, and only one: to sell more products. Check the “helpful” links at the bottom of the page and if the URL takes you to the product by way of an affiliate site like linkoffers.net, then watch out. It’s probably a clever ad.

The solution seems obvious. This deceptive form of advertising should be banned by the FTC. But I’m a realist. The agency will probably send out a few warning letters in a few weeks, then let this industry continue to grow. Never mind the harm caused to consumers.

But you don’t have to be a victim. You need to know how to spot these dangerous ads, and now you do.

Do you trust a site that runs "native" ads?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend