Earlier this year, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it was conducting an investigation into how social media influencers declare sponsored content.
Our Strategy Director Daniel even spoke to marketing bible The Drum about the issue, and what it could mean.
At the end of September 2018, the CMA, along with the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), unveiled a guide specifically for influencers, entitled ‘making clear that ads are ads’.
In most cases, spotting an ad is pretty easy, but with influencers offering their opinions and sharing their favourite items, it can sometimes be harder to tell what is a genuine and organic recommendation, and what is paid-for. The new guidelines aim to stop such issues.
The full 20 page guidelines are available here – or you can check out everything you need to know below.
What counts as an ad?
It is worth noting that a post can still be advertising even if it has not been sponsored on Facebook or Twitter to reach more people. Organic posts can still be advertisements.
When thinking about advertising in the social media influencer space, the first thing that springs to mind is the general sponsored post, where someone is given money to say that a product is great: be it a type of make-up, clothes, a holiday, or something else. They may receive money, or get free products for the post, and either way it is an advert.
Affiliate marketing (when your post contains a link or a discount code that can directly be traced back to your content) also counts as a form of adverting and must be called out.
Made In Chelsea star Louise Thompson was given in trouble for not calling out that her Instagram Story which offered $100 off a Vanity Planet product was an ad.
An advertorial is when a brand pays an influencer in some way (money, or gifts) to write about a product or service and has some form of control over what is written.
If the brand has no control over the posts, it is not technically advertorial, but influencer should still mention that they received payment for the post.
If someone runs a competition (e.g. to celebrate reaching a certain number of followers), or promotes their own services (e.g. promoting merchandise this also technically is a form of advertising and must be called out. In this case, the influencer themselves is the promotor.
You can read more rules on competitions and promotions here.
Still not sure if a post is an advert? Page 13 of the guidelines has a fantastic flowchart to help.
How do I make it clear the post is an ad?
The CAP code states that ads must be ‘obviously identifiable’ – meaning that those who see it shouldn’t need to guess or have to click through or interact with the post in any way to have to discover it is an advert.
The easiest way is to simply include the word ‘ad’, ‘advert’, ‘advertisement’ or ‘advertising feature’ in the post. Depending on the situation, ‘sponsored’ or ‘sponsored content’ can be used, but this will not always be appropriate.
The Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA – the people who complaints are made to, and who check if adverts uphold the CAP code) recommend that words such as ‘in association with’ or ‘thanks to X’ aren’t used, as these do not obviously call out the post as being an advert. Similarly, just mentioning the brand, or tagging them in the post isn’t enough.
One thing also worth noting is that the ASA recommends putting the advertisement announcement at or near the beginning of the post. If readers have to click ‘read more’ before they see the mention, this means it isn’t obvious enough. So, no using #advertising at the end of a group of 20 hashtags…
What rules apply to adverts?
Even if an influencer always has their ‘advertising feature’ tag right at the start of their post, they may still fall foul of the CMA and CAP.
As well as rules on competitions and promotions, as mentioned earlier, there are also restrictions on certain products – these include age-restricted products (such as alcohol advertisements) and promoting food or any supplement or slimming product.
Earlier this year the ASA investigated posts made by Geordie Shore stars, which encouraged followers to sign up for bets on gambling websites, but didn't mention that the posts were sponsored. With gambling being an age-restricted product, this led to double the issues.
It is also worth noting that any claims will need evidence that back them up – for example, if claiming a vacuum cleaner removes 20% more dirt than a leading brand, there will need to be evidence to qualify this.
You can read the full code on the ASA website.
What happens if someone complains?
If a complaint is made, the ASA will investigate – no matter how small. If they do not find anything wrong, it will be dismissed. If the ASA do decide to look into a post, they will get in contact with the author to discuss in more detail.
If there is a problem, the ASA will try to resolve it informally, and will look to get the post removed or edited. However, if there is a more serious infraction, the ASA may launch a formal investigation. This gives the influencer – and the brand behind the post – the opportunity to reply. An independent ASA Council will then review the evidence and make a ruling on whether the ad is compliant.