Perhaps the biggest issue for YouTube creators and brands in 2015 is shaping up to be clearly identifying videos as ads. About five months ago, Oreo ran an advertising campaign in the UK under the moniker “Lick Race”. The only problem is that the London-based Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received a complaint from a BBC journalist that challenged whether or not it was clear that the videos were ads for the brand. As a result, a request was made that “The ads must not appear again in their current form”. This is the first time I can recall where ads have been pulled for not following guidelines to clearly identify themselves as promotions.

This ruling continues the trend I wrote about back in October where the FTC guidelines for bloggers stated:

The basics are that the disclosure has to be in words that the consumer can understand – it can’t just be a URL or a link, it has to be in a place where consumers will see it. Certainly as a practical matter, the best thing would be to put it in the video itself, and for the person to say it.

Oreo Endorsements Fail to Mention Sponsorship

In the Oreo based ads, the YouTubers followed what have become the accepted guidelines within the community for making advertising videos. Traditionally speaking, vloggers mention they are working with a brand, clearly identify the product they are promoting and make some sort of vague mention to the video being an ad in the first 45 or so seconds. I say vague because part of the value of using YouTube creators to promote a brand is to get the message seen by their audience, of which a large portion will click off if they know the video is an ad. So it is in the best interest of both the advertising partner and the creator to say the video is an advertisement without actually saying it is an advertisement.

The group who made the ads are no stranger to working with brands and making content online. Combined, the YouTube channels have over 10 million subscribers and the ads have generated over 2 million views in traffic. Since the ruling, it appears the channels have taken specific steps to remedy the issues, including putting “this is a paid advertisement” in the upper third of the description box and, for some, adding an annotation that clearly states the video is a paid advertisement at the beginning.

Is Declaration of Brand Sponsorship Enough?

The conversation then shifts to whether or not this is enough. There is a careful balance between protecting an online video creator’s ability to sustain their livelihood and making sure that their content remains honest. That is more for the creator to decide than an organization or government entity as creators who repeatedly make dishonest content are quickly shunned by the online community when they are discovered.

The broader issue is the enforcement of policies that are both existing and new as both the FTC and the ASA have policies on the books that suggest a verbal indication of a video being an advertisement is preferred. Right now, just putting an annotation and a mention in the description box may not be clear enough. Viewers who do not routinely watch videos on YouTube may not realize they are watching an advertisement. Often description boxes go unread and annotations unseen outside of the desktop version of the site, especially when the videos are embedded externally.

FTC Guidelines for Bloggers: YouTube Needs to Stand Up and Protect Creators

This puts creators who make their livelihood from YouTube at risk when running ads. The simplest solution is for YouTube to stand up and protect their creators. There should be a feature that shows a watermark across all platforms when a creator checks a box that indicates the video is a paid advertisement. End of story. At that point a creator maintains the ability to creatively make the content and viewers have absolutely no excuse for not realizing they are watching an ad.

Furthermore the interruption and intrusiveness of saying, “This is a paid advertisement” doesn’t ruin the quality of the content, which is routinely judged in the first few seconds in online video. If the ASA and FTC continue this trend into 2015, it could become increasingly difficult for video creators to earn a living, many of which have turned to brand deals as a way to supplement AdSense revenue. YouTube must protect its greatest asset, the creators.