The Ad Element

This post is brought to you by the Council for Doomed Quixotic Proposals

HTML needs to have a semantic tag for sponsored content, e.g. <AD>.

The AD tag, which (like HEADER, MAIN, or NAV tags) has no essential presentational requirements — no prescribed way of affecting the layout or appearance of the document — only serves as a container to note the presence of sponsored content.

This tag would apply not only to third-party ads (i.e. ad banners) loaded into a page, but to paid editorial content inside a page. So, if I paid you to write a 1000 word piece about my new washing machine, and put it on your washing machine review site, you’d have to wrap your ARTICLE tag in an AD tag.

This would also apply to other media content: wrap your AUDIO and VIDEO in AD blocks, too.

A definition of sponsored content would have to be in place, but that doesn’t sound impossible. In fact, it would likely be a question of which of the many definitions to choose from. These definitions come from search engines, consumer protection groups, newspapers, and so on.

It may in some cases be hard to judge whether what you’re publishing is an advertisement or not, but developers are already asked to use their best judgment when applying any semantic element, or (for that matter) when making sure their content follows any regulation (GDPR, CAN-SPAM, etc.) . Usually, the rule is to err on the side of caution.

Anyway, there are a few advantages to this idea:

  1. HTML exists solely to describe content on the web, and since ads are such an important part of the web, this is an opportunity to fill in a huge gap.
  2. The AD tag would provide a mechanism to highlight sponsored messages and avoid confusion among readers as to whether what they’re seeing is part of the editorial voice of a website, or whether it’s a second party speaking through them. You may have noticed that it has gotten harder to tell the source of online content (I certainly have) and having a clear annotation helps avoid confusion.
  3. Since many advertisers may not want to reveal they’re paying for promotion, the AD tag would make it easier for sites to safely enforce rules against this bad behavior. What I mean is, it’s easier to say “your content was removed from our platform because it didn’t clearly disclose it was a political advertisement, not because we disagree with you politically.”
  4. It would also be easier (and at any rate, not any harder) for sites like Google and Facebook to differentiate honest, well-intentioned content sources from bad actors, by whether they properly use this tag.
  5. It is likely that, unless self-enforcement of some kind is put in place by online advertisers, either the U.S. or E.U., or both, will put some stricter regulation in place. Often, self-imposed restrictions like this are a good way for industries to prevent heavy-handed regulation by legislators who probably don’t know what they’re doing¹.
  6. And, of course, that it would be so much easier to block them.

¹ Compare the voluntary MPAA rating system used by the film industry, compared with the disastrous EU Cookie Law)