Over the last two years the ASA has received increasing numbers of complaints about social media content that features advertising but is not obviously identifiable as an ad.
The great news is that we’ve seen a big change in the way that advertorial content is being labelled, with many bloggers, vloggers and news sites placing the correct label in the correct place. In instances where things weren’t quite right, the ASA has taken informal action to clear matters up.
However, these cases have shown that there may be a misunderstanding about which labels are appropriate; we’d like to take this opportunity to clarify the difference between ‘sponsored’ and ‘ad’ when it comes to advertorials.
What is an ‘advertorial’?
An advertorial (or ‘advertising feature’) is a piece of content in editorial space which is paid for by a brand and over which they exercise some degree of editorial control. If a confectionary brand gives your favourite blogger a goody-bag on condition that they write positively about it, that’s an ad. If a travel company sends a vlogger on a free trip to the Andes on condition that they have final editorial sign-off for any videos made about it, those are ads. The ASA recently ruled on a Twitter ad for Alpro, with helpful references to the elements that meant it was covered by the advertising rules (CAP Code).
What is ‘sponsorship’?
Sponsorship only has the ‘payment’ element and leaves editorial control entirely with the creator; these are not ads for the purposes of the CAP Code. If a computer company gives or lends a vlogger a PC on condition that they give an honest review, that’s not an ad. If a car company financially supports a series of news articles, but has no editorial input, that’s not an ad.
However, such arrangements are still subject to consumer protection laws and the attention of the Competition and Markets Authority.
Identifying marketing communications
The advertising rules require that all ads are obviously identifiable as such. When it comes to advertorial content, the onus is on the publisher/influencer just as much as the brand.
Sometimes it will be clear from the context that something is an ad, and in such instances a label may not be necessary. However, that’s not usually the case for most advertorials on social media; such content should use an appropriate label, which should be placed somewhere consumers will be able to see it before they choose to read, watch, or listen to that content. CAP guidance on different kinds of vlogging advertorial explains when and where such labels should appear, and is relevant to all forms of social media.
What should the label say?
The label should make clear that the content is an ad. There isn’t one specific label that advertisers and publishers must use, but ‘ad’ and ‘advertisement feature’ are suitable.
Because ‘sponsorship’ is not the same as ‘advertising’, labels such as ‘sp’, ‘spon’ and ‘sponsored post’ are all unlikely to stick to the rules, so we strongly caution against their use. If something is an ad it cannot also be sponsored; labelling it as such is likely to mislead because it suggests that the brand had no editorial control and that the content is therefore primarily independent.
Statements such as ‘brought to you by’, ‘in partnership with’ and ‘thanks to our friends at…’ are all ambiguous as to whether the content is advertising or is sponsored material. As such, these should be avoided as well.
The need for caution is discussed in a ruling about vlogs for Mondelez, as well as rulings about an Instagram post for Britvic a (non-advertorial, but still relevant) video for P&G and a Telegraph advertorial for Michelin.
The bottom line
Ads are ads. Sponsorship is sponsorship. Labels that describe an ad as ‘sponsored’ are likely to break the rules in the CAP Code which require ads to be obviously identifiable.
For the avoidance of doubt, this advice applies across all non-broadcast media, not just content on social media.