A bout of influencer: Beware of ads masquerading as opinion

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A bout of influencer: Beware of ads masquerading as opinion

With the rise of the social media influencers, adverts have become far less obvious. What does the law say?

Consumer journalist


I was recently invited to a women’s “media” lunch where I turned out to be the only traditional journalist in the room – all the others were bloggers, some full-time and others part time.
A couple of PR people have asked me what my rate is to mention their client’s products in this column, and so many consumers now ask me what I’d charge them to take up their fight with a corporate.
Bloggers and “influencers” are blurring the definition of media – yes, we’re all published writers, but journalists generally have professional training, and are required to gather and verify facts from several sources. And we absolutely can’t accept payment or lavish gifts as inducements to publicise anything. Or to help a consumer get justice – that would be unethical in the extreme.
The rise of the social media blogger has also made it harder for consumers to spot paid-for advertising.
Most, if not all, are paid – either a monetary amount or in the form of free stuff – to endorse or plug products and services, and in most cases they don’t declare this.
This grey area was spotlighted by a complaint to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) earlier this month about an Instagram story by reality TV show star Louise Thompson in May. It included a video of her showing a brush product with the on-screen caption: “Obsessed with my glowspin! Swipe up for $100 off using my code…”
The complainant challenged whether the advert was “obviously identifiable” as a marketing communication.
Thompson, who has more than a million Instagram followers, said she had been paid a fee to promote the brand Vanity Planet, but that there was no formal written contract in relation to the post and there was no explicit obligation required by Vanity Planet. She’d been unaware of the fact that she had to include the word #ad to her story posts, because – and this is the interesting bit – “she considered that her audience would have been aware of the fact that she would be receiving a benefit in exchange for the post given the inclusion of the promo code”.
The ASA upheld the complaints, saying marketers must make it clear that “advertorials” are marketing communications.
The word “advertorial” was first used by newspapers to describe paid-for adverts that are dressed up to look like impartial news stories.
The word “advertisement”, or another word or phrase indicating that space was paid for, has to appear somewhere.
In the Thompson case, the ASA concluded that while the post contained some elements that indicated there might be a commercial relationship between the celebrity and Vanity Planet, “we considered that the content and context of the post did not make clear that it was advertising, as opposed to, for example, genuinely independent editorial content or sponsored editorial content”.
Both parties promised that future advertising posts on Instagram stories would be properly labelled as adverts.
Naturally, I was very interested to learn how the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (Asasa) viewed the issue of “influencer” posts on social media, given that, like their global counterparts, many SA “influencers” got free stuff in exchange for writing a positive review, and those in the big league were paid a fee on top of that in exchange for mentions on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, none of which is identified as advertising, as far as I can tell.
Asasa CEO Gail Schimmel began by sharing some statistics on SA’s current social media landscape:
• 29% of South Africans are on Facebook;
• 8 million South Africans use Twitter; and
• Instagram has 3.8 million SA users and LinkedIn 6.1 million.
Of 118 brands surveyed:
• 97% use Facebook, with 86% of brands “advertising” on Facebook;
• 90% are on Twitter, with only 45% “advertising”; and
• LinkedIn and Instagram both at 78%, with “advertising” at 35% and 40% respectively.
“While the ASA has not had complaints on this issue, it is encapsulated in the section of our code which regulates the identification of advertising, especially when it appears in an editorial medium and might be mistaken for editorial.
“We are of the view that if an influencer was paid in any form, the resulting coverage must be labelled as advertising, by means of #ad.
“It is less clear whether a person given a gift in exchange for ANY review – in other words, it doesn’t have to be positive – is advertising, such as a press release.
“To this end, we are working closely with the Interactive Advertising Bureau to draft and introduce a Social Media appendix to the Code.”
Good to know – the clarity will be very helpful.
I’d love to be able to commend a company or individual that gave me great service without fearing people would assume I scored a freebie in return for a punt on Facebook.

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