Consumer Ombudsman monitors the use of advertorials: Advertising must always be recognizable

The Finnish Consumer Ombudsman has had discussions with the Finnish Periodical Publishers’ Association about advertorials, or advertisements that resemble journalistic content, and their recognisability. The Consumer Ombudsman will keep an eye on the situation and expects not only publishers but also advertisers to pay more attention on the statutory requirements of advertising being recognizable.

The recognisability of advertising has sparked a lot of discussion recently. The problem with advertorial type advertisements is that the advertisement has been drawn up to resemble editorial content in the publication in which it appears, including an introductory paragraph and body text. The layout, images or textual content of an advertisement often are essentially similar to other articles in the relevant publication. The only reference to advertising often is the word “Advertisement” or “Advertorial” printed on top of the advertisement.

The Consumer Ombudsman supervises marketing and advertising under the Consumer Protection Act. This Act states that marketing must clearly show its commercial purpose and the party on whose behalf it is carried out. The act applies to marketing in general, regardless of the medium used. The rules on advertorials are the same for every medium; in other words, they apply to advertorials in periodicals and, for example, newspapers alike.

The line between an advertisement and editorial content must be kept clear
Advertorials seem to have increased their popularity in recent years. They may trick the consumers into thinking that they concern journalistic content produced by editors, and not everybody always spots the small word “Advertisement” or understands what it means. An advertorial may, for example, look like an article on well-being written by a journalist. In addition to a layout resembling an article, this idea may be encouraged by quotations from experts and references to studies in the body text, which give the impression of editorial content that is based on facts confirmed by experts.

Consumers generally have more trust on editorial content than advertisements. An advertisement that misleadingly resembles a neutral press article may have an inappropriate influence on the consumer’s decisions. However, consumers have the right to expect that marketing is clearly separated from editorial content, eliminating any risk of error.

According to the Finnish Market Court’s case law, it must be possible to recognize an advertisement for what it is without a closer perusal. As advertisements are always only glanced at, the line between editorial content and material that serves commercial purposes must be kept clear. Research in consumer behaviour has also shown that consumers trust the main message they read, while they usually expect the text printed in small letters to only contain insignificant and non-essential information.

Talks with the Finnish Periodical Publishers’ Association on this theme will continue in the autumn.