ASA Warns Social Media Influencers to Adhere to Advertising Laws

Social media ‘influencers’ are a fairly recent phenomenon, a direct result of the excessive influx of advertisements we have forced upon us each day. This heightened exposure to promotional materials leads to something known as ‘advertising fatigue’, whereby consumers begin to distrust or outright ignore promotional campaigns and messages from brands and companies. This is where influencers come into play, as marketers turn to individuals with a large online following to promote their products or services in a manner deemed more personal, authentic and, by extension, trustworthy.

It is exactly this form of paid promotion which has raised some eyebrows at the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), as they have warned that many social media influencers are actually breaking the law by not clearly indicating that these posts are in fact advertisements.

Influencers in the UK are legally obliged to include #ad or #spon (short for sponsored) in promotional posts, and by not properly disclosing the paid promotional nature of the post in this manner, these influencers are in violation of the CAP code for non-broadcast advertisements as they cannot be easily differentiated from unpaid personal endorsements born out of the genuine enjoyment of a product. Basically, the difference between personal opinion and paid promotion must be clearly visible, lest you risk drawing the ire of the ASA.

This issue has become increasingly widespread over recent years, in part due to the rising popularity of social media platforms in general. Official figures show that the number of complaints made to the ASA regarding social media content has nearly tripled over the last four years, rising from 622 in 2012 up to 1,824 in 2016 – an increase of 193%.

That being said, representatives from the ASA have indicated that they do not believe these influencers are, on the whole, intentionally deceiving their fan base or breaking the law; rather, the reasoning behind the uptick in complaints received is in large part attributed to ignorance.

Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, commented on the issue, “Too often we are seeing content that is clearly an ad and not identified as one. We are trumpeting this a bit and trying to raise awareness … We are trying to deal with cases that come across our desk to provide support, advice and clarity to brands and social influencers so they know when and how to disclose content.

“Some [people] do include #ad and, although we are in a better situation than a few years ago, we are still not where we need to be and that is very often due to ignorance [people not knowing the law].”

Daniel Knapp, an advertising researcher at the analyst firm IHS, also shared his thought on the matter. He asserts that, “Consumers are saturated by traditional forms of advertising, such as TV breaks, online banner ads or outdoor posters. To combat advertising fatigue, marketers look to influencers as an alternative and more authentic way of selling their goods and services. Yet while many influencers are managed by specialist agencies, ultimately, brands work with individual people who may not adhere to the same standards and codes of ethics as a TV broadcaster or radio station selling advertising.

“Undeclared advertising and sponsorships are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the larger influencers have become brands in their own right, who have launched makeup and product lines that they present on their social media channels. This leads to a further blurring of content and commerce that especially younger consumers struggle to navigate.”

Meanwhile, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said of the issue, “It’s vital that anyone getting paid for endorsing or promoting products online makes that clear. Unclear online endorsements can mislead shoppers and damage businesses playing by the rules.

“The CMA has been leading the way in this area with its international partners to help stop fake and misleading online reviews and endorsements. We’ve already carried out two enforcement cases against social media and marketing companies in the UK for misleading practices, and we’re going further to protect online shoppers by providing clearer guidelines to businesses and marketing companies on their responsibilities under the law.”

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