Clarifying the ASA’s ruling and Outbrain’s position about labeling

|Yaron Galai

Our core mission at Outbrain is to make the web more enjoyable for consumers. For the better part of a decade, we’ve worked with the most powerful, trusted names in publishing to do just that, using our proprietary technology to bring the most authentic, timely, informative and entertaining content to users that is uniquely interesting to them.

In our partnerships with publishers, we’ve also done our best to complement the user experience they’re already providing their audiences. As such, each implementation of our technology looks a little different from publisher to publisher, making the issue of who or where the content recommendations on those sites are coming from a fluid one for users.

In that time, Outbrain has always worked within best practice guidelines on the issue of clear labeling for marketing communications in every territory that we work.

In the European Union, Outbrain has worked with the IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau), and in the U.S. the IAB and FTC (Federal Trade Commission), and has been involved in discussions on this matter that have been taking place for more than 12 months. The IAB Content and Native Advertising working group was set up this past February and is getting ever closer to drawing up a full set of guidelines for native advertising, and Outbrain is very much involved in this process.

However, content discovery is a relative newcomer when compared to traditional web advertising, so the situation is fluid and there is still a great deal of discussion to be had about labeling and disclosure.

Ultimately, we hope to arrive at a point where the industry has established a best practice framework that we hope will be adopted widely. The reason that we talk about a ‘framework’ rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules is that it’s impossible to dictate a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the content discovery space, we feel that we lead the market in terms of clear labeling and providing content that is of genuine interest to consumers. Our content guidelines are strictly enforced to ensure that only content that is informative, authentic and entertaining makes it on to Outbrain’s platform – anything that falls short of these standards is rejected.

Bearing this in mind, we wanted to clear up a number of misunderstandings surrounding the recent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) judgment involving Outbrain.

A single complaint was made to the ASA about a recommended link at the bottom of an article on the website of a UK publisher. The link was to an article titled ‘Keep Your Email Private!’ hosted by an Outbrain partner. The label text accompanying the link read ‘You may also like these.’ Next to this was an Outbrain logo which, when hovered over, brought up text reading ‘Links to 3rd party content were paid for by an Outbrain customer.’

The complaint centered on whether or not it was clear that the article link was to have been paid for. The ASA found in the complainant’s favor and advised Outbrain that the link should not appear again in its current form until changes had been made to make it clearer that it was a marketing communication.

You can read the full judgment here:

The role of the ASA is often misunderstood, so for clarity, here is a quick explanation from the ASA itself.

“The Advertising Standards Authority is the UKs independent regulator of advertising across all media. We apply the Advertising Codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice. Our work includes acting on complaints and proactively checking the media to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements.”

In its FAQ page, it outlines its powers (our emphasis): “Our primary sanction is to have advertisements that we judge to be in breach of the Codes withdrawn and prevent them from appearing againThe ASA is a non-statutory body so we do not have the power to fine or take advertisers to court.”

In short, the ASA cannot ‘ban’ an advertisement as it has no legal powers to do so, though it works with other regulatory bodies such as Ofcom and Trading Standards and can recommend that these organizations pursue legal avenues in the case of persistent offending, though these cases are extremely rare.

While this particular instance was found to be in breach, the ASA judgment clearly states (our emphasis): “The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Outbrain to ensure future advertising placed by them was obviously identifiable as such.”

So, the ASA has asked Outbrain not to use the same labeling in future and to change labeling on all future advertising so that they are represented in a clearer way, which certainly does not constitute a ‘ban’- it merely requests that changes be made.

As we say, there is still some way to go with the IAB Content and Native Advertising working group’s discussions. The ASA’s ruling does indeed set a precedent, meaning that we now have some clearer guidelines to work toward.

What the ASA’s ruling doesn’t do, however, is spell the end for native advertising, as some commentators have suggested. Content discovery based on an individual’s interests has much value to offer a consumer, and it’s in everyone’s interests to help those consuming content online to find the best articles, videos and so on.

Here are some of the changes that we have been working on and will be recommending that our partners implement. These are in-line with our approach to being as open and transparent with readers as possible and with our ongoing labeling and branding efforts. These will also likely satisfy the ASA’s comments, which we accept as useful feedback:

– The words “Promoted Stories” or “Promoted” or “Sponsored” will also appear “on or near” each Outbrain surfaced paid link (in particular if the Outbrain module consists of internal recirculation and paid links).

– The mention “recommended by” [with the Outbrain icon] will be changed to “recommended by Outbrain” [Outbrain shall be the full logo in words and not the Outbrain icon].

– We will underline “recommended by Outbrain” to better signal to end users that the words “recommended by Outbrain” can be clicked on for additional information.

It’s worth noting that every partner that Outbrain works with will need to be reviewed to ensure that any changes will not negatively impact the working and appearance of their websites, so the process will take some time to complete.

We’d welcome your thoughts on how best to present sponsored content in a clear way. You can get in touch here.


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Yaron Galai

Yaron Galai

Yaron is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Outbrain. Prior to founding Outbrain, Yaron was Co-Founder, SVP of Quigo, Inc.,... Read more

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