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After deep study and discourse, the FTC delivered its enforcement policy on native advertising last month. And to help corporations toe the digital line, the FTC offered up “Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses” with 17 examples covering every imaginable scenario.

If only it were that easy.

Take the sponsored content from Marketo that recently appeared in Mashable.Marketo Sponsored Content 01-16As highlighted above, the Mashable native ad absolutely checks the FTC box as being labeled paid content from a source other than Mashable. But here’s why many readers — perhaps even most — will perceive the content as Mashable editorial.

Let’s start with the visual cues, comparing the Mashable content sponsored by Marketo with a bona-fide article on Marketo penned by a Mashable journalist.Sponsored-Editorial Comparison 01-22-16The visual impression of the Marketo native ad screams editorial.

The headline looks like the same typeface and weight.

The social-push elements look the same.

The real estate includes the same Mashable velocity graph.

The illustration even carries the attribution of a Mashable graphic designer.

Before the reader lands on the first words, the visuals have preconditioned the reader for editorial.

As for the actual story, it delivers industrial-grade storytelling worthy of a Mashable writer, no surprise since it was likely penned by Eli Epstein (no longer at Mashable) whose credits include Fortune, The Atlantic and Esquire.

In fact, the content reflects the same storytelling techniques found in a feature story in any business publication:

  • Fiction-like opener

“The scene: A smoke-filled room clamors with anger, frustration and optimism as men in earth-tone suits and skinny wool ties debate — from art to copy to product placement — the best ways to sell dishwasher fluid. At long last, they agree, clink their glasses of brandy and set a plan in motion for six months down the road.

“That’s marketing in a nutshell, right? A closed-door, one-size-fits-all operation that moves at the speed of molasses.”

  • Things go wrong

“I was in a friend’s neighborhood playing in the sandlot, and I was barking instructions and orders and coaching tips to my team. I will never forget this — the mom of one of the kids on the team was watching us and yelled from her front door, ‘Hey, why don’t you let Mr. Know-It-All do it?’ We lost the game, and I went home and talked to my mom about it.”

  • Humanity

Little League 01-16Side note: While advertisers love puppies and babies to touch the consumer’s heart, a retro photo of a little league baseball is in the ballpark.

  • Conversational language

“Gosh, there are a myriad of skills that a marketing organization has to have. One of the things I often say is that there is no single marketing function. The reality is that inside of marketing there is an ever-growing number of disciplines, from creative and brand design to product marketing to demand generation to customer marketing to communications, etc. My cop out answer is that you’re probably looking for people with all of these functional capabilities.”

Side note: Can a narrative trip from being too conversational? I’d say the “Gosh” was a bit much.

  • Metaphor

“I talk about the new prototype for the CMO as a Da Vinci — they must be both a scientist and an artist.”

  • Contrast

“We’re not trying to shout at people through billboards at the Chicago O’Hare Airport.”

  • Levity

Question: Looking into the future, what do you think will be the CMO’s most valuable resource in 15 years?

“Well, Marketo, of course, haha! Too much?”

Again, the sponsored content will fool many readers into thinking they just read a Mashable story.

It gets “better.”

Mashable’s native ad package includes a social push that shows that Mashable tweeted out the story just like editorial.Marketo Tweet 01-16The 88 RTs and Likes for the tweet are on par with the action that comes to most of Mashable’s Tweets.

And Google News interprets Mashable’s sponsored as editorial.Google - Marketo 01-16Naturally, readers coming to the story through searching Google News will assume they’re looking at editorial.

That’s why this type of content freaks out the FTC.

The Marketo-sponsored content in Mashable follows the FTC guidelines, yet it still deceives the consumer.

Do you think Mashable and Marketo should be commended for their collective savvy in constructing this sponsored content within today’s “rules?”

Or do you think the FTC should rethink and refresh its policies to crack down on this type of consumer deception?

Regardless of your position, we can expect this blurring of the line between paid media and editorial to only increase over time.


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