Commercial communication in a digital environment.
As one of the founding members of the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) the Italian Self-Regulation Organization (IAP) contributed to the preparation of EASA's guidelines issued with respect to commercial communication performed online (reference is to the 'Digital Marketing Communication Best Practice Recommendation' and the 'Best Practice Recommendation on Online Behavioural Advertising').
The 'Digital Chart', what is it meant for?
Acknowledging the rapidly increasing relevance of digital advertising, the local SRO (IAP) decided to analyze and address potential issues specifically linked to (or originating from) commercial communication performed through online platforms and accessible on a broad range of new devices or media. To the purpose, the IAP prepared and released the 'Digital Chart', a document meant both, to individuate the most common forms of commercial communication in use on the Internet as well as to assess how the problem of transparency and recognition of promotional messages should be dealt with in the digital context. The background idea behind the initiative was the intent to offer the Advertising Industry a set of guidelines - best practices to rely on, when allocating their commercial communication in this specific playfield. After a first version - released in 2016 - the 'Digital Chart' received an update in 2018.
The 'Digital Chart', was does it say and recommend?
The Digital Chart is the outcome of an accurate analysis of different areas of commercial communication and advertising techniques in use for online advertising. In detail, the Chart focuses on issues relating to marketing practices such as:
endorsement of brands, products or services performed through or by ‘celebrities’, ‘influencers’ (such as bloggers or vloggers) and ‘common users’ (posting their comments and opinions). Not all appreciative comments diffused by such individuals about a product, a service or a brand will automatically constitute an 'endorsement', as it may well occur that posted content, mentioning a brand or showing satisfaction about the characteristics of a certain product, is simply the result of a user's personal preference, opinion or appreciation (as such covered by the right to freedom of expression).
However, any time such comments pursue a 'promotional intent' - by high lightening the reputation or the visibility of a brand, they will need to strictly comply with all the requirements set by the Advertising Code with respect to the use of ‘testimonials’ as well as for ‘transparency’ (i.e. immediate and easy recognition of all forms of commercial communication).
Using 'influencers', 'celebrities' or 'bloggers (vloggers)' in advertising.
The same distinction applies when advertisers rely on the services performed by the new players mentioned above. Those individuals are at liberty to express their personal opinions. Thus, when their online posts involve an 'agreement' (with an advertiser or its representative) in order to promote a product or a brand, then the promotional intent must be clearly revealed to the public. Such requirement will be properly satisfied by inserting - at the begging of a post - alerts such as: "advertising", "promoted by brand XYZ", "in partnership with ...." or - within the first three hashtags - indications such as: "#advertising", #sponsored by brand XYZ" or "#ad" in combination with "#brand".
If the relationship between a brand and a influencer, celebrity or blogger (vlogger) involves just an occasional supply of a product for free or of modest value, comments posted should always come with a prominently displayed disclaimer stating "product supplied by brand XYZ".
When 'user generated content' involves a relationship with brand and pursues a promotional intent, the requirement previously explained will also apply.
Native advertising occurs when commercial communication is inserted into a certain context in a way that the distinctive lines between editorial content and promotional messages tend to blur and the latter is not immediately and clearly perceivable as advertising. The most common forms of 'native advertising' make use of ‘in-feed units’, ‘paid search units’ or ’recommendation widgets’.
While the practice is not specifically dealt with by the local Advertising Code, the IAP recommends the promotional intent to be made clear and patent through specific alerts, e.g. “Advertisement”, “Promoted by”, “Sponsored by”, “Sponsored Content”, “Suggested Post”, “Sponsored Post”, and “Presented by”. Also, graphic distinctions (e.g. color, shading, etc.) may result suitable to the purpose.
'Recommendation Widgets' will usually rely on suggestions such as: "You may also like .....", "You may also be interested in ...", "You could have missed ...." or "Others recommended to you". When such practice is performed, the 'Digital Chart' suggests the promotional intent to be revealed through:
- an alert about the presence of sponsored content (possibly together with sponsor's brand and logo),
- an identification of the advertising scope of the content via disclaimers such as: "advertising", "promoted by brand .." or "sponsored by brand ....",
- any time a a technology provider or an intermediary party gets involved, by the statement "content offered by... accompanied by ...." (with the name of the technology provider or intermediary).
Marketing performed on Social Networks or Content Sharing sites.
Such practice is equally subject to all the provisions set in the Advertising Code and, specifically, to ‘transparency’ / ‘disclosure’ requirements. To adequately fulfill such requirements the 'Digital Chat' proposes the following alerts: “recommended post” or “sponsored” when videos show, close up on or make reference to a specific product. Should the product have been supplied by the advertiser, a disclaimer should clearly indicate such supply.
It is usually performed on users’ devices (e.g. via banner ads, interstitial/full screen ads, advanced overlay ads, notification ads and capture form ads). According to the local SRO all these technical means, when used for promotional purposes, must comply with the provisions of the Advertising Code. For disclosure all means are deemed as adequate, provided they are capable of clearly revealing the promotional intent of a message.
The 'Digital Chart' also suggests placing a disclaimer informing users that some additional features are sponsored.
This marketing practice presents commercial communication as part of an electronic, interactive game. There are different levels of sophistication as to how the promotional message is embedded into the game. The integration can result as:
- simply 'associative', when a product or a brand is not integrated into - or part of - the game but is just put in relation to it,
- 'illustrative', when the focus of the game is on the product or brand, inserted into it (i.e. when players cannot proceed to the next level without undergoing a challenge or skill test involving the product or brand, e.g. by finding the product, hidden somewhere or combining the letters of the brand),
-'demonstrative', when the interaction between the product/brand and the player reaches the highest level (e.g. allowing the latter to virtually test the product).
Again, the 'Digital Chart' offers no specific indications on how to reveal the promotional intent of the advergame. All means suitable to allow a clear and immediate perception are deemed as adequate. The recommendation is to place in any case a disclaimer stating "promoted or sponsored by ...." together with advertiser's name and logo. In addition, the SRO high lightens the fact that games are particularly appealing to minors. Hence, special care and strict compliance with the Advertising Code's provisions on commercial communication targeted or direct to minors are advisable.
Additional resources advertisers should consider for useful indications.
The Digital Chart also contains a list of international resources where proper guidance for digital advertising is available. The respective indications mention the ANA’s “Advertising is going Native (2015)”, ASA guidelines and surveys, EASA’s “Digital Marketing Communication Best Practice Recommendation (2015)”, the FTC’s guidelines, IAB’s “Native advertising Playbook (2013)”, the ICC’s “Advertising and Marketing Communication Practice – Consolidated ICC Code (2011)” and IAB UK’s “Content & Native Disclosure Guidance Phase 1 e Phase 2 (2015)”.
Despite all these (certainly useful) indications, recommendations and guidelines, it remains that the Advertising Industry is in strong need of some easy to understand and internationally agreed standards in order to be able to diffuse commercial communication successfully in the digital environment (which will necessarily imply activities performed on a global level across borders).
Absent such standards, advertisers and their consultants will always find themselves exposed to the risk of intervention by national Regulatory Authorities or Court decisions with outcomes differing from country to country. Not exactly an appealing perspective in times where advertising campaigns are conceived to reach out to the broadest audience possible.