Why it pays to #ad

Influencer marketing is big business. A $1.7billion industry in 2016 has expanded to a projected $15billion one in 2022[1]. In February 2022 there were 57.6 million active social media users in the UK[2], which represents 84% of the UK population.

Its rapid expansion has seen many influencers encounter the inevitable teething problems that many new businesses face – learning about rules and regulations as they’ve gone along. The primary stumbling block they’ve faced, and that the ASA has been tackling over the last few years, is ad disclosure. In short, some influencers and the companies they collaborate with have either unwittingly or knowingly failed to be upfront and clear when their posts are ads and, as a result, have misled their followers and broken the advertising rules.

High profile ASA rulings have established case law and clarified for influencers, and the advertisers and agencies they collaborate with where the line is drawn. And comprehensive guidance – drawing out the lessons from the rulings - cascades from that. Central to all this is the requirement in the Advertising Code for ads to be ‘obviously identifiable’ as advertising. That means we should know, quickly and easily, when the content we see, hear and interact with is advertising, i.e. it’s a paid for message. When it comes to social media influencer posts that’s ordinarily achieved via a clear, prominent, upfront and timely label.

While the ASA cannot mandate a particular label, over the course of time and through our rulings and guidance, the use of #ad has become a recommended and readily accepted way of disclosing the post as advertising. We know, however, that some of our rulings have come in for criticism, namely that, owing to particular factors of the posts, they were held to be ‘obviously identifiable’ as advertising and, therefore, did not need to be labelled.

There are very good reasons why we apply the rules as we do, which take account of the social media context in which most influencer marketing occurs and relevant consumer research.

Advertisers understandably want to tap into the popularity and reach that influencers command. And in partnering with influencers they often create advertising in the style they know the influencer’s followers are engaged with. This form of ‘native advertising’ (when a paid post looks pretty much the same as surrounding content) can make it difficult for people who engage with it to decipher what is genuine editorial and what’s been paid to appear in front of them: paid-for posts in social media are very rarely separated from other posts by clear-cut optical means, as is generally the case in other mixed content media like newspapers and TV.

People have busy lives. The sheer volume of and the pace with which we are served and engage with bite-size, scrollable content means that we aren’t prepared to spend time analysing whether it’s advertising. We don’t have to and are not used to doing so in other media. Couple this with the typically heightened trust many people have in an influencer’s content (in many instances someone we’ve chosen to follow, whose views we align with or have an interest in) and it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of us may simply not possess the skills to automatically spot an ad, no matter how media savvy we think we are.

We know from ASA commissioned independent consumer research that people struggle to identify influencer advertising. On average, only a third of 18-64-year-olds exposed to influencer adverts as they had originally appeared on social media said that what they had seen was “definitely an ad”. And from the influencer advertising tested, those pieces of content which had no ad label scored lowest for being “definitely an ad”. This was despite some of those pieces having tell-tale signs that the content was likely an ad, such as a discount code.

We’re confident that our work, along with the CMA’s, over the past four years has raised awareness of #Ad as an ad disclosure label on social media even more. In Ofcom’s Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2022 70% of participants identified that the influencer was being paid to promote the product shown, with #ad shown within the content. 

Importantly, our rules around disclosure has appropriate regard to the law. Legislation prohibits a business from paying to use editorial content to promote its products or services without making it clearly identifiable (whether in writing, images or sounds) to the consumer that it’s done so (advertorial). In tackling non-disclosure in influencer posts, we reflect this legislation and align ourselves with partner organisations like the CMA.

If influencers and brands want to seamlessly mix editorial and advertising into one authentic blend of content, the onus should not be on the consumer to do the work to establish when they are engaging with an ad. They shouldn’t have to hesitate or guess. Advertising should be instantly clear.

When advertising and editorial content is deliberately intermingled, we still maintain the best and most simple way of making it obviously identifiable as advertising is via a clear, prominent, upfront and timely ad disclosure label, such as #Ad or #Advertisement.

Since our first upheld ruling against an influencer back in 2014, we’ve undertaken a significant amount of work to help influencers stick to the rules and get their posts right by clearly labelling them, as and when required, as ads. That includes comprehensive and easy-to-understand guidance spelling out how and when the ad rules apply to them; training for digital agencies, brands, advertisers and influencers; and widespread awareness raising through public and media relations activity. An ongoing focus of our work in this area continues to be supporting influencers with the guidance and tools they need.

Some may think there are occasions when influencer advertising is clearly recognisable without the need for a label, but our work in this area shows that, in almost all cases, there is clearly potential for consumers to be misled if one is not used. No one should be in any doubt when an influencer’s post is an ad. That's why it pays to label it clearly.

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  • Matt Wilson

    Media and Public Affairs Manager

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