Advertising and Internet Literacy

Now that web advertising has matured to a certain extent, is it time to revisit what is meant by “internet literacy”? Traditionally, internet literacy covered such issues as:

  • searching well, ie using advanced search techniques that didn’t result in millions of websites in response;
  • understanding the domain name’s suffix: COM, or .CO.UK, for instance, may indicate a commercial interest, although I have to say that I think that is not a reliable indicator;
  • what sites and blogs are linked to from the website? That should tell you a lot about the website, based on the “birds of a feather” principle;
  • what sites link to the website in question? That should tell you even more. (Use the link command in Google, eg

But advertising adds two new dimensions which we need to consider (and which are, in fact, linked):

  • Overt vs covert advertising.
  • The relationship between advertising and editorial.

Advertising is overt when it has been made clear that something is an advertisement. For example, it may have the word “Advertisement” above it, or “This article is sponsored by…”. Covert advertising is when the advertisement is not obvious.

This is an important distinction, and one which is not easy to draw. This became very apparent during a Westminster Forum conference I attended recently on the subject of Digital Marketing. Just to give you a quick heads-up on this, in the UK the digital remit of the Advertising Standards Authority will be extended to advertising on a company’s own website. Astonishingly, until this amendment was introduced, my understanding is that it would be perfectly within the letter (though not the spirit) of the ASA’s code to have misleading advertising on a company’s own website as long as that wasn’t the case when the company advertised on a third party’s website. This anomaly will be ended in March 2011.

So far, so straightforward, right? Wrong! For a start, the extended remit will cover only advertising, not editorial, by and large. However, where is the line between the two? If an article contains a link to a product, has that link been paid for? If so, then it’s an advertisement, but in the guise of editorial.

What about user-generated content? If a company moderates users’ blog comments or forum discussions, does that make  it liable should someone sing the praises of a product which turns out to be a dead duck? The answer seems to lie in the nature of the moderation and the degree to which it is applied. We’re told that common sense will reign. I do not doubt the ASA’s good intentions, and I for one wholeheartedly support this development, but I don’t think the situation is as clear-cut as the consumer would like.

A couple of times members of one of the conference panels expressed the view that “I know an advertisement when I see it”, to which my response is, “Do you? Are you sure?”.

It seems to me that because of the many guises in which advertising can appear, evaluating the trustworthiness of a website is much more complex than is suggested by the list with which this post began”. You also need to consider the questions below. I have included some additional questions in brown which I suggest you discuss with your students, or use to help guide your discussion with students. You may also wish to check out Check – the Children’s Ethical Communications Kit. This website contains information on all the regulations governing communicating with children in a whole range of ways and contexts including, for example, online chat, video games and social networks. The information mainly relates to the UK, but some relates to the USA too. You should also download A tangled web – Marketing to children, which highlights the shortfalls in this area, such as the lack of sufficient regulation governing marketing campaigns aimed at children.

  • If ads are included, do they conform to the ASA’s code, or your country’s equivalent? What is the ASA or your country’s equivalent? Is the code voluntary or legally binding? If the former, what sanctions can be imposed, ie does the code have any “teeth”? (One of the changes being brought in is that there will be an area on the ASA’s website that will be used for naming and shaming companies that fall foul of the code.)
  • Are the advertisements labelled as such, with such terms as “Advertisement”, “Sponsored Article”, Advertorial” and so on? If the article or feature has been sponsored, has the sponsor influenced the actual content, or simply funded it in order to have its name mentioned? For example, Asus is sponsoring the Guardian’s Eavesdropper site, but has not had any input into what is actually posted there.
  • Whether advertisements are (overtly) included or not, is some of the editorial really advertising in disguise? How might you be able to tell?
  • Are contributors’ articles genuine, ie written specifically for that website or taken from a bona fide source? How could you tell?
  • Are the comments genuine, ie do they add value to the article or the discussion, or are they merely a vehicle for some form of advertising? How could you determine the answer to this?

I don’t think there are definitive answers to these questions. But they do need to be asked, and discussed in class. For the most part, those awful, jarring pop-up ads are gone, because companies realised they were just annoying people -- and good riddance. But internet literacy is now a lot harder as a result.