Why is it important to learn how to identify ads? Ads are made to look more organic nowadays with only slight differences between organic posts and ad posts. Our minds have been conditioned to be turned off or put up our guard when we come across blatant ads like website banners, in-game reward ads and tv ads. When ads look less obvious, we tend to be more accepting and influenced by them; some of us might not even notice that they are ads. Advertisers can pay to place ads either via the various platforms or directly via the content creator. Although unpaid ads do exist (e.g. ads asking for volunteers), we will only focus on paid ads in this article.
This chapter will be focused on identifying ads and why is it important to do so.
If you have not read the first chapter on the basics of digital marketing, you can read it here.
What Are Ads?
Ads are pieces of communication that attempt to promote awareness, convince and/or remind an audience regarding a subject.
This subject can be a
- Social issue (e.g. environmental, political, health)
- Product & service
According to the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, all advertisements need to be legal, decent, honest (no lies) and truthful (not withholding information). There are specific guidelines and laws that various industries have to follow or else they might face consequences.
Functions Of Ads
Ads come into play in the awareness and consideration phase of the marketing funnel.
If the audience is influenced by the ad positively, it will result in an outcome (e.g. increased sales, increased vaccination rates) that the advertiser wants.
An ad lets the audience know that the subject exists.
An ad also attempts to convince the audience that the subject is for them. Ads can directly highlight the benefits of the subject or be something as subtle as painting a desirable lifestyle around the subject or making the subject look trendy, therefore if you want to be seen as trendy, you should consume said subject.
Ads can also be used to keep the subject in the mind of the audience. When the audience needs to make a decision, the subject is on their mind.
The average consumer is exposed to multiple brands every day, products and services so ads of a certain subject can keep it on the top of their mind. When it is time to make a decision, ads can give an edge as the audience will have the subject on the top of their mind out of all the different subjects that the audience is previously exposed to.
The Four Parties In Ads
Generally, there are four main parties involved in ads.
The advertiser is the party with a goal in mind and plans to use ads to achieve this goal. An advertiser can be a brand with a product or service or a group representing issues regarding politics, the environment or other social issues.
Examples of such goals can include
- Brand and product exposure
- Audience engagement
- Attracting and convincing new customers in the current target market
- Attracting and convincing new customers in the new target market
The end goal is to increase sales most of the time.
Depending on the situation, the ad can be created in-house, outsourced or a combination of both.
|In-house||Advertiser has their own professional marketing department or the ad campaign is simple enough to be done within the company.|
|Outsourced||It might be more cost-efficient to outsource the ad campaign. Also, when working with parties like content publishers, they might require a high amount of autonomy regarding their content.|
|Combination of both||This will depend on the degree of involvement of both the advertiser and the content publisher.
Low involvement by advertiser: Set of simple instructions given by the advertiser and allowing the content publisher to decide what to publish
High involvement by advertiser: Advertiser sends over the copywriting and the content publisher just read off the script.
Or the advertiser is involved every step of the way in producing the ad to make sure every message published is approved by corporate.
It can range between both extremes.
A platform acts as a middleman between the audience and the advertiser. The business model of a platform is they have a product or service that is usually free that attracts the audience to the platform. When there is an audience, then they are able to attract advertisers.
Examples of platforms include
- Search engines like Google search
- Social media like Facebook and YouTube
- TV stations like Mediacorp
- Ecommerce platforms like Shopee
Ad revenue is one of the main, if not the main, revenue streams of the various platforms.
Content publishers create content and publish them on platforms. They provide a product or service that attracts an audience to the platform.
Examples of content publishers are
- Content creators
- Social media users
- TV programmes (content publisher) and TV Stations (platform)
- Search engines like Google Search and Google Maps (content publisher) and Google the main company (platform)
Sometimes, the platform and content publishers are in the same entity although they might be in different departments.
Content publishers either create content for free (e.g. posting on Facebook and Twitter) or get paid while doing so (e.g. content creators on YouTube and TikTok). They can get paid by advertisers directly (sponsored segments) or indirectly (ad revenue from platforms).
Content publishers are also putting their reputations on the line when they endorse a certain subject.
The audience is the last part of the puzzle. Most of us will fall under this group. The audience is the consumer of products and services. Advertisers would like to get their subject in front of their target audience.
We get to use platforms for free (usually) in exchange for viewing some ads. Most consumers understand this compromise and tolerate ads in exchange for using the platform for free.
How Ads Are Delivered
Ad delivery to the audience generally has two paths.
- The advertiser will know who is their target audience (demographics like age, gender, occupation and hobbies) and want to get their ad in front of them.
- They will then decide to work with a platform and/or a content publisher.
- Ads are then shown to the audience.
Ads Via Platform
Advertiser > Platform > Audience
|Advertiser creates ads and works with the platform to show ads to the audience||E.g. YouTube Video Ads, TV Ads, Search Results Ads, Social Media Ads|
Ads Via Content Publisher
Advertiser > Content Publisher > User
|Advertiser works with the content publisher to show ads to the audience||E.g. Sponsored Content, Brand endorsements, Product Placement|
For AVP, content publishers do not have control over what ads are shown alongside their content as the platform is the one that has a contract with the advertisers. While for AVCP, content publishers have direct editorial power over how and what kinds of ads are shown inside their content.
AVP are more direct and “in your face” and are differentiated from the content while AVCP are usually more subtle as they are integrated within the content.
When watching both tv and YouTube videos, we will come across both kinds of ads.
For example, product placement and sponsored segments WITHIN the programming are AVCP while commercial breaks and skippable/unskippable ads are AVP.
The Monetary Relationship Between The Four Parties
Here is how the money will flow between the four parties.
Ads Via Platform
Advertiser pays to create ad – The advertiser will either set up their ads for free/low cost if it is simple enough (e.g. Google Search Ads) or have a budget to create an ad (e.g. YouTube or TV commercials).
Advertiser pays platform to publish ads – The advertiser will then approach a platform to publish their ads. They either pay depending on the number of times the ad is viewed (e.g. YouTube ads) or just a flat fee depending on the timeslot (e.g. TV ads).
Platforms pays content publisher for bringing in the audience – In some cases, the platform will then pay the content publisher in exchange for bringing views to the ads.
For example, YouTubers get paid a portion of the ad revenue when their audience view ads while watching videos. For TV ads, the platform and content publishers are the same party so a portion of ad revenue is used as a budget to create content (e.g. tv shows).
In other cases like Google Search, Google Maps or Social Media, content is created for free so the platform just has to pay for its own operating costs.
Audience pays advertiser when consuming subject – The audience then spends money on the Advertiser when they consume the product.
Ads Via Content Publisher
The main difference for AVCP is that the advertiser will approach the content publisher directly, skipping the platform.
Advertiser pays content creator to create and/or publish ad – The advertiser will pay the content publisher directly to create and publish the ad. It can either be a flat fee or a commission based on items sold or a combination of both.
Sometimes, no money is involved and the form of remuneration can come in the form of free merch. This usually happens in the case of small influencers where some free stuff is enough for them to talk about the subject. Bigger content creators know their influencing power and will usually require monetary payment.
Although these sponsored segments are published on the platforms, platforms do not receive a cut in these direct ad contracts.
Audience pays advertiser when consuming subject – The audience will then spend money on the advertiser, giving the advertiser a return on marketing.
Why Is It Important To Identify Ads?
Ads used to exist on billboards or on commercial breaks so we explicitly know that they are ads. However, nowadays, paid ads are blended together with organic content so it can be more difficult to identify ads if we do not know what to look out for.
So why does it matter whether what we are viewing are ads or not?
Although some people do not care, I believe consumers should have the right to know if a piece of content we consumed is an ad. Ads are paid messages used to influence the audience. We should be able to know when someone is paid to influence our decisions.
When a subject appears in the content we consume, it can either be a paid ad or the content creator is a legitimate supporter of the subject. To make things more complicated, the content creator can be a legitimate supporter while being paid.
If there is no commercial interest, a subject endorsement should hold more weight. A good example would be to compare an endorsement by a close family member or friend as compared to a paid ad we see in the media.
When there is a commercial interest relating to these ads, content creators might be relatively less willing to highlight the negatives while more willing to highlight the positives as it directly affects both their short-term (current engagement) and long-term (future engagements) prospects.
This means that ads can be less objective as their goal is to influence us, the audience.
I used the phrase “can be” because ads nowadays are not necessarily totally biased.
Not All Ads Are Biased
Content creators know that being objective is worth much more than that one sponsorship. Their reputation can be destroyed by one bad sponsorship. By being objective, the ad will also look more organic and therefore have a higher chance of converting the audience into a consumer. It also allows the content creator to maintain their reputation if they are truthful, leading their audience to be more prone to believe them in the future. It might be ok if they say something bad about the subject as some consumers might not think that the specific negative point is a deal breaker and will proceed to purchase the item.
However, if that one sponsorship really pays big, many content creators might be tempted to be less objective. There are still plenty of influencers that accept bad endorsements just because they pay well.
Things Aren’t That Simple
We will never know the true mindset (objective vs biased) of the content publisher. Even when the content publisher thinks that they are perfectly objective, the commercial interest involved might have some effect on what they say. Even if the effect is 0.1%, it is still slightly biased. In some cases, some content publishers might even talk about subjects for free without any current partnerships as they hope for a future partnership with the advertiser.
The only thing we can hope for is for paid ads to be identified. By knowing if a piece of content is an ad, as the audience, we can then make use of this piece of information to make our decisions to either just trust an endorsement or perform additional due diligence.
Most of the time, ads should be easily identified when they are either obviously separate from the content or when they are tagged as ads. However, if the audience does not know where to look, they might not know what they are viewing are ads. If the ad isn’t tagged and/or is incorporated in the content, it can be even harder to identify them.
According to the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice,
There is an obligation on all concerned with the preparation and/or publication of an advertisement to ensure that anyone who looks at the advertisement is able to see, without reading it closely, that it is an advertisement and not editorial matter.
It is quite ambiguous how obvious must an ad be and assumes that the consumer should be able to identify that what they are watching is an ad.
Local Mainstream Media
A certain aircon brand is very prominent in our local productions where they advertise the functions (i.e switching on the aircon with your phone) within the serial dramas.
Another example would be a sponsored variety show by a supermarket brand where they give out money to their customers in the form of lucky draws and games.
Radio shows also usually have sponsored segments where they give away cash or vouchers sponsored by a corporate entity.
It is not explicitly said that these are advertisements. I feel that it is obvious that these examples are ads, however, does it apply to everyone? I am not so sure.
Influencers And Content Creators
Although they look less commercial, they are still corporate entities that create content for a living. They can either do sponsored content or sell their own merch or services as income. These key opinion leaders can have substantial influential power over their followers as they are more personable, engage more with their followers and are therefore more trusted than brands. Sponsored content by a KOL will have more conversion power than a pure corporate ad as they are more trusted and less prone to be skipped. Audiences are also more immune to overly commercialized ads. We either skip them or ignore them completely. When we consume content, we might give it more attention if it is an ad by our favourite content creators or when an ad is incorporated into the content. The followers might also want to support their favourite creators by purchasing the sponsored subject.
I also remember in 2022’s NDP, an individual gave Y* K*n a shout-out during an interview just because she was grateful for kaya toast. But guess what? She is actually an influencer. Since then, she has been offered free stuff from Y* K*n. She then requested for them to give more stuff to her to give away as well. Would you consider this an ad? I would say yes. She saw an opportunity and took it. Even though she probably wasn’t paid during the first shout-out, everything after that gave birth to a marketing opportunity.
Tips On How To Identify Ads
If you would like to be more informed about the content you are consuming, here are some tips on how to identify ads.
Tagged As An Ad
This is the most obvious one. When a piece of content is tagged as an ad, it is an ad. It might sound ridiculous but if you do not know where to look, you might miss out on these declarations. Keywords to look out for would include ad, advertisement, paid, sponsored and promoted.
Branding And Logos
Once you see a brand or logo appear, I think it would be safe to assume it is an ad. Content is typically carefully curated to show what the creator wants. Branding and logos usually don’t appear by chance.
The copywriting for the content will sound unnatural as it will need to include keywords to sell you the subject. The copywriting can include the details and benefits of the subject, slogans or how the subject will solve your problems.
On top of copywriting describing the subject, terms like promo codes, discount codes and sale periods that encourage consumption can also be included.
To reach specific audiences and to improve on Search Engine Optimization, ads might also have multiple hashtags, especially hashtags that include the product brand and name.
Purpose Behind The Message
This is the catch-all for identifying ads. Question the purpose behind the content you are consuming. Look at who is posting the message, why are they posting it and how is it benefitting them. If your action is influenced by the ad and the poster benefits from you taking action, it is most likely an ad.
Examples Of Unobvious Ads
Social media ads, search engine ads and TV commercials amongst others are quite obvious as ads. However, here are some ads that I think are less obvious to the average consumer.
Google Maps Ads
Source: Google Maps
The companies that paid for ads will look square instead of the usual markers. Additionally, when zoomed out, their names appear first as compared to those in the near vicinity. The search results will also have them at the top. If you don’t look closely, they might look like organic results and not ads that pay to be at the top.
Facebook Messenger Ads
The ads look almost exactly the same as the chatboxes with your friends and family. After clicking, they will bring you to a page that has a “call to action” to either send them to their page or for you to send a message to know more about their products. You might wonder who would even press on these ads as they are not your friends. However, if set up correctly and targeted at the right audience, it can work. These ads don’t appear randomly. You either fit their target audience or they can retarget you if you have interacted with their page before. If you look at messenger stories, ads can also appear between your friend’s stories. According to Facebook, 50% of users visited a store to purchase the product after seeing it in stories.
Product placements have existed for a long time but if you do not recognize them as ads, you might assume that it is just there in the scene naturally. Such ads work subtly as they make an impression on you. Product placements increase awareness and also remind them of the product, keeping it on top of their mind. For example, if you see McDonald’s while consuming media, there is a higher chance of you choosing Macs when you are craving fast food as it appeared more recently in your memory.
Ads That Violate Rules
If there are local ads that violate the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, a complaint has to be submitted to the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore before they decide to take any action. These actions can be taken by ASAS if they decide there is a violation
- informing the advertiser to amend or remove the advertisement in question.
- withholding advertising space or time from advertisers, and withdrawal of the trading privileges from advertising agencies. Both these sanctions are applied by the media owners.
- exercising the option of publishing details of the outcome of the investigations, i.e. naming advertisers who have breached the code. The adverse publicity would have an impact particularly on recalcitrant offenders.
- referring the matter to CASE for action to be taken under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act for recalcitrant advertisers who repeatedly ignore the SCAP by persistent marketing of false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims.
If you see any ads that you think violate the code, you can report them here.
Learning how to identify ads is important as it allows us to know whether there is any commercial interest behind a piece of messaging that is used to influence our decisions. All ads should be clearly identified to allow the audience to decide how they would use this information, whether to just trust it, ignore it or do additional due dilligence. Question the purpose of the messaging and you should be able to identify whether a piece of messaging is an ad or not.
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