As paid “stories” about cancer and financial ruin flourish on the web, are better labels the answer?

Taboola sceenshot

Call it “native advertising” or “sponsored stories” or “content marketing”  — whatever your buzzword of choice, more publishers and advertisers are embracing the tactic, which involves packaging ads to resemble the surrounding editorial content.

The result is more and more “stories” on popular sites like Time or Politico from “around the web” that are actually ads or political messages. Some of these native ad “stories” can offer quality reading with a subtle marketing message, while others amount to alarmist drivel with headlines like “10 sure signs you have cancer” or “Expert says financial collapse is upon us” — the latter ads, especially, are leading some to fret that native ads are deceitful and a “Faustian pact.

In response, Taboola, a “recommendation engine” used by many publishers to suggest stories to readers, introduced new labels this week that are intended to help readers identify “promoted content.” Here’s a screenshot of how the label looks on a web page from Time:

Taboola screenshot

CEO Adam Singolda told me in a recent interview that the company is using the new label to promote transparency and give readers more control over what ads they see; Taboola also recently introduced a feature that lets readers customize which ads appear.

The labels (which are in a very faint grey) could help readers, but will also provide more grist for regulators who are probing what companies must do to identify native advertising. The debate also raises the question of who is responsible for the controversial ads like the ones about cancer about economic collapse: Taboola or the publishers like Time and Huffington Post that host them, and enjoy a cut of the revenue when readers click on the “stories.”

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