Yes, it was distributed by Warner Bros. and yes, it featured the voices of Hollywood stars Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, and Morgan Freeman but the story line was based on Legos products with its backing. And as far as Cohen is concerned, that makes it sponsored content and very excellent sponsored content at that.
As digital marketers go forth into 2016 they should keep the Lego movie in mind — especially in their native ad strategies, which is a form of sponsored content. That is Cohen’s advice and frankly it is better and a lot more positive than some of the other messages the industry has received in recent weeks.
The FTC's Enforcement Statement
To recap in case you missed it during the holidays, shortly before Christmas the Federal Trade Commission released a guide outlining which forms of native advertising are acceptable and which could be considered deceptive.
Native advertising, of course is, as the FTC described in its guidance "content that bears a similarity to the news, feature articles, product reviews, entertainment and other material that surrounds it online."
The reason for the FTC's guidance is that as native advertising evolves, consumers may not be able to differentiate advertising from other content.
The FTC's point in its guidance — and more significantly its point in the accompanying enforcement action — is that it will consider the net impression the ad conveys to consumers. "Because ads can communicate information through a variety of means — text, images, sounds, etc. — the FTC will look to the overall context of the interaction, not just to elements of the ad in isolation," it wrote in its guidance.
"Put another way, both what the ad says and the format it uses to convey that information will be relevant. Any clarifying information necessary to prevent deception must be disclosed clearly and prominently to overcome any misleading impression."
This statement was disappointing to both digital marketers and publishers. Native advertising is a strong performer among the various ad formats and have the added benefit of being able to side step ad blockers.
The IAB Pushes Back
The industry association, the New York-based Interactive Advertising Bureau, did not let this statement of enforcement go unmentioned. Push back is coming, it more or less said in its own statement.
"The trade organization intends to seek more clarification from the Commission, particularly on provisions in the guidelines that could impinge on commercial speech protections and longstanding advertising conventions familiar in other media."
For advertisers, that leaves two less-than-palatable choices: comply with the FTC guidance or wait to see if the IAB's implicit threat of a legal fight will work causing the FTC to back down.
A Third Way
Now here is Cohen and his third way a la The Lego Movie. His point is this: when sponsored content is compelling and entertaining, it doesn't matter how it is labeled. Not to the consumer at least.
"This is what the conversation should be about," he told CMSWire. "Instead of arguing about how the native ad should be labeled and whether brands are trying to disguise themselves, why not put yourself out there as a brand — one that delivers great content."