This story was updated on Friday, January 13 at 12:50 pm.
American Media, Inc. has agreed to discontinue certain advertisements that ran in weekly celebrity magazine Star amid claims that they don't live up to industry transparency standards.
In response to a complaint filed by the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Divsion (NAD), AMI announced that it will no longer run SlimFast advertisements in Star using a format considered by NAD to be insufficiently differentiated from editorial content, misleading readers.
It's the first time NAD, which typically reviews claims made in advertising, has held a publisher responsible for the way native advertising is presented, according to a spokeswoman.
Referencing, specifically, the September 26, 2016 issue of Star, a December 21 decision by NAD reads, "The cover page referred readers [to pg. 58] of the magazine for an article titled, 'Snack Your Way to Slim.' … This cover story and article appeared to be editorial content but were in fact advertisements for SlimFast."
A second article, promoting SlimFast's high-protein meal-replacement shakes, similarly resembled editorial content despite actually being a paid advertisement, according to NAD. Though presented as unbiased copy, the articles in question included claims directly from SlimFast marketing, like "clinically proven to lose weight and keep it off," and "the superfast slim-down secret."
"While the advertising itself was for SlimFast, the magazine was promoting the product on behalf of SlimFast when it published what appeared to be editorial content, but was, in fact, advertising," the NAD spokeswoman explains to Folio:. "Any third-party that 'persuad[es] the audience of the value or usefulness of a . . . product' engages in 'national advertising,' as we define it, and is considered to be an advertiser for that product."
FTC guidelines on native advertising — which NAD references in complaints against both AMI and SlimFast — require that all forms of advertising, including native, be presented in a way that makes it clear to readers that the source of the content is an advertiser, and not the publication itself. Most importantly, no ads should appear similar in format to editorial content, and native ads should be clearly and conspiculously labeled "advertisement," "sponsored," or any of a number of other acceptable terms.
A deliberate misrepresentation of the source of the material, according to the FTC, is likely to affect consumers' choices regarding the product advertised. In other words, readers are more likely to trust claims made in a publication's articles than in its advertisements.
In response, an official statement from AMI reads, "While American Media, Inc. respectfully disagrees with some of the concerns expressed by NAD, it appreciates NAD's efforts and agrees to discontinue the challenged practice."
NAD and the Better Business Bureau may have done AMI and Slim-Fast a small favor by allowing them to be proactive in discontinuing the ads; the FTC — which has come after everyone from Lord & Taylor to Instagram influencers in enforcement of its native ad policy in recent months — has the authority to levy fines of as much as $16,000 for each individual violation.
The current January 16 issue of Star contains a two-page advertorial-style spread promoting various SlimFast products with a small "Advertising" label in the top-right corner.
Online, however, a number of dubious articles, purportedly written by editorial staffers but almost certainly part of a paid SlimFast campaign, proliferate throughout AMI's portfolio of websites, including StarMagazine.com, OKMagazine.com, and MensFitness.com. The absence of proper labeling on these stories is particularly notable given the presence of other articles on the same sites that clearly lie more in the realm of compliance, like this one for OK!, a series of workout tips sprinkled with product recommendations and labeled "promoted content."
In addition to Star, American Media, Inc. publishes OK!, Men's Fitness, and The National Enquirer, among others.
Update: In response to this story, AMI provided the following statement.
We are very concerned about the defamatory headline and implication in your article, that falsely states AMI “pulled” SlimFast ads after a challenge from the Better Business Bureau. AMI did no such thing, and the press release by the NAD does not state otherwise. Rather, as both the press release and AMI’s statement make clear, AMI agreed to “discontinue” the advertising campaign in question. In fact, AMI received the NAD inquiry after the SlimFast advertising campaign at issue had concluded. Thus, while disagreeing with NAD’s position (as AMI’s statement in the press release makes clear), AMI saw no purpose in challenging NAD’s position because the ad campaign had been concluded.
AMI did not, however, “pull” any ads for SlimFast. The suggestion that it did damages AMI’s reputation not only with SlimFast, but with all of its advertisers because it falsely suggests that AMI believed it did something wrong or unlawful, which it does not.
General Counsel — Media
Additionally, "Sponsored Content" labels have since been added to the online posts referenced above.