Mention “listicles” in conversation, and it won’t be long before someone declares them the death of journalism, or language, or attention spans, or whatever. They’re the online content equivalent of Nickleback: popular to pile-on to and outwardly condemned. And yet, just as the band continues to pack stadiums, so too have “listicles” become near-ubiquitous, garnering heavy traffic on websites ranging from Wired to the New Yorker. It appears people do, in fact, enjoy their information delivered in easily digestible numerical chunks. And, of course, advertisers have noticed.  

Listicles are one of the most popular forms of native advertising, and Buzzfeed, the most prominent list-form article website, regularly publishes these types of branded articles. Dunkin' Donuts challenged readers with the existentially terrifying quiz “Which Donut Are You,” while HBO explained to us the “10 Feelings All NYC Girls Have At Least Once” in anticipation of the start of latest season of Girls. It’s a partnership that is all well and good -- at least until the line between advertorial and editorial gets blurred.

Crossing the Thin Red Line

Earlier this month, Dylon, a U.K.-based fabric dye manufacturer, published a sponsored listicle on Buzzfeed’s UK website entitled “14 Laundry Fails We’ve All Experienced.” Each item in the article was introduced with a picture and the same grammatically questionable, slang-laden captions one comes to expect from Buzzfeed:


Thirteen more laundry debacles followed until the phrase, “It’s at times like these we are thankful Dylon Colour Catcher is there to save us from ourselves. You lose, little red sock,” appeared.  

Obvious in intent though the post may seem (because really, who writes about something as innocuous as laundry unless they’re getting paid?), Buzzfeed was accused of failing to be upfront with Dylon’s sponsorship, resulting in harsh criticism from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) :

[The labelling] was not sufficient to make clear that the main content of the web page was an advertorial and that editorial content was therefore retained by the advertiser … .We further noted that the web page was very long and visitors to it would therefore not see the reference to Dylon Colour Catcher at the bottom of the page until they had already engaged with the content.

It should go without saying that Buzzfeed is not the first publication to blur -- if not outright overstep -- the boundary between sponsored content and editorial content. The Atlantic famously ran an advertorial for the Church of Scientology, hoping to leech off the credibility of the esteemed magazine. And Kim Kardashian’s Instagram (granted not an example of journalistic integrity) drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for posting an unregulated ad for a morning sickness drug. It’s why the Harvard Business Review argued for clearer definitions on what constitutes a native advertisement, and why in December 2015, the FTC delivered a stern warning against deceptive advertising. As spending on native advertisements is only expected to soar in the coming years, something has to give.

Until then, though, the question remains: With the line between acceptable and violative being so thin, how can advertisers ensure their native advertising is following the rules? First, you need to know the types of native advertising available (as defined by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)) and the guidelines that accompany them.

5 Types of Native Advertising You Need to Know

1) In-Feed Units

In-feed units are advertisements, typically editorial, that look as if they are a natural part of a publisher’s news feed. Appearance varies depending on the publications (i.e., social media, mobile, news site), but the general idea is to design the advertisement in such a way that it doesn’t feel tacked on or out of place. Those that follow industry guidelines must include a way to denote sponsorship.


2) Recommendation Units 

Unlike static in-feed units, recommendation units appear based upon what a user is currently searching and reading. They are most commonly seen in the “Around the Web” sections towards the bottom of articles on popular websites. While these ads typically don’t have to outright mark themselves as “sponsored,” successful ones make no attempt to hide the name of the advertiser.  


3) Promoted Listings 

Promoted listings work similarly to recommendation units -- basing the offer on a user’s browsing history. However, they typically do not advertise editorial content, rather a specific product. For example, if a user searches for “decorative vases” on Etsy, promoted listings of vases may pop up at the top of search results. Perhaps the most stringent of the various types of native advertisements, these must be clearly marked as ads.


Image via Etsy

4) In-Ad With Native Elements 

These are ads that appear outside of the editorial well (such as traditional banner ads) but remain relevant to the content around it. There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to how these ads should appear as they are often separated from the actual content. However, to avoid a potential ban, advertisers should make sure the brand is displayed somewhere, as is the case with the below example.


Image via Allrecipes

5) Paid Search Units

Though there is some debate over whether or not paid search units qualify as native ads, the IAB considers them to be, and as such, they are worth mentioning. Paid search units are the sponsored listings accompanying search engine results. Advertisers need not worry about violations, as search engines automatically label sponsored results as advertisements. 


Native advertising can be an excellent tactic in reaching targeted audiences, but skirting regulations can invite a whole list of complications, ranging from consumer distrust to outright platform banishment. 


Originally published Feb 2, 2016 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Native Advertising