FTC Tests How Blurred the Ad Lines Are

Advertising Law

Can consumers recognize an advertisement contained in search results or native advertising? In attempting to answer the question, the Federal Trade Commission shared research data in a new report.

For “Blurred Lines: An Exploration of Consumers’ Advertising Recognition in the Contexts of Search Engines and Native Advertising,” the FTC interviewed 48 participants and observed and tracked their eye movements as they interacted with eight different sets of web pages.

Four of the eight were search engine web pages, and four were web pages from media sites that included native advertising. The study was intended to test whether participants recognized the content as advertisements while disclosure modifications were made.

“In particular, the staff was interested in whether making modest changes to the design and wording of disclosures—based on guidance previously issued by the FTC staff and usability and web design principles—could improve consumers’ recognition of these ads,” the agency explained.

The FTC said the 2014–2015 study compared participant reactions to actual ads (both search and native) as they appeared on a series of captured web pages with the reactions of other participants to nearly identical versions of the same pages that included modified disclosures designed to improve their prominence, legibility or clarity. Disclosure modifications included both language changes and tweaks to position, text size, and color of the wording and other visual clues, including background shading or borders.

“Overall, the study results suggested that using disclosures that are consistent with FTC staff’s guidance can improve the likelihood that consumers will recognize an ad as an ad,” the FTC wrote. “Across the different ads we tested … the disclosure modifications substantially increased the likelihood that a participant recognized an ad as an ad. The improvements observed were substantially similar across search and native ads, as well as between ads viewed on a desktop and on a smartphone.”

For 13 of the 17 ad conditions tested, the enhanced modifications increased the likelihood that a participant would recognize an ad in the range of ten to 45 percentage points, the FTC said. Changing the ad label’s text color and adding distinctive background shading both improved ad recognition.

However, even with the improved disclosures, a “significant percentage” of participants still did not recognize some advertisements as ads, the FTC noted.

“Minor modifications, including changes to disclosure language, position, text size and color, and to other visual cues such as the borders around or background shadings of ads or ad groupings, can in combination substantially increase the likelihood that a consumer recognizes an ad as an ad and reduce the potential for consumers to be misled as to the commercial nature of paid search and native ads,” the report concluded.

To read the “Blurred Lines” report, click here.

Why it matters: The study was designed to be exploratory in nature and had a number of limitations, the FTC acknowledged, with future research necessary to isolate the effects of various factors such as text color and size and disclosure location. However, the results support the conclusion that using some of the commonsense disclosure techniques recommended in FTC staff guidance can greatly increase the likelihood that consumers will recognize an ad as an ad.

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