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Blurring advertising and blogs – why it pays to know the ad rules

13 November 2013

We’re reminding bloggers who are paid to write positive reviews or comments about a product or service that they must be up-front with their followers by making clear that it’s advertising. Not only will this help bloggers avoid misleading people and breaking the ad rules, it will also stop them from potentially breaking the law.

Why are we doing this? We’ve received a steady stream of enquiries from bloggers wanting clarity on this issue and how the rules apply to their blogs. Some have also raised concerns with us, as well as via their own blogs, about social media and PR agencies who’ve apparently offered them money to advertise on their behalf while encouraging them not to declare that they’re doing so.

Why is this a problem? The advertising rules, which apply across media including online, are very clear. Ads must be clearly identifiable as such. Put simply, a blogger who is given money to promote a product or service has to ensure readers are aware they’re being advertised to.

On top of this, the rules also state that falsely presenting yourself as a consumer. i.e. giving a view that appears to be opinion but that is actually paid for, is a misleading practice and one that is prohibited under consumer protection laws. In this instance, a blogger may find that it’s not just the ASA who gets in touch but also their local Trading Standards Office.

All of this applies equally, if not more so, to those companies and PR agencies looking to enter into commercial relationships with bloggers. Under the Advertising Code, although the blogger would be named as part of any ASA investigation into misleading advertising, ultimately the buck would stop with the advertiser. If a paid for entry on a blog wasn’t disclosed we would investigate the advertiser and hold them accountable.

It’s important to stress that we’re not here to stop bloggers earning money. It’s perfectly legitimate for a blogger to accept payment in return for promoting something in their blog. Moreover, the rules don’t prohibit PR companies sending free gifts or samples to bloggers in the hope of receiving a positive review.

Nor are we here to regulate blogger’s opinions. A blogger can of course give their view on any topic and, if it’s an opinion, then we have no remit or interest in regulating that space. If, however, they are paid to say something positive then it becomes an advertisement and they must disclose it.

How can bloggers make it clear if their blog contains paid for content? Signposting it as “ad” “advertorial” or “sponsored content” is a simple hassle free way to make it immediately clear to readers. We also encourage bloggers or advertisers who want free, expert guidance on the rules in this area and how to stick to them to contact the Copy Advice Team.

At present, we’re not bombarded with complaints on this issue but we are starting to see it creep up the agenda, particularly amongst those in the blogging community who play by the rules and are concerned about peers who don’t. This issue does present a regulatory challenge. Bloggers have editorial control over their sites so we have to be pragmatic about the action we can take in this space. But, as well as holding an advertiser to account, if a blogger is unwilling to cooperate then we can consider a range of sanctions to bring them into line.

Bloggers can hold great sway and influence amongst their followers. It’s important, therefore, that they treat their followers fairly. Arguably, one of our most effective sanctions is to shine a light on those blogs that aren’t playing by the rules. The fact is the reputation and trust that bloggers work so hard to foster amongst their followers can disappear very quickly. Misleading your followers is hardly the best advertisement for your blog.

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