Thoughts on the New Government Influencer Disclosure Guidelines

 

 

Thoughts on the New Government Influencer Disclosure Guidelines

 

The UK government have just released a document entitled ‘Social Media Endorsements: being transparent with your followers’. A guide intending to provide “information for influencers for when they’ve been paid, incentivised or rewarded to promote a product, brand or service on social media.” Sounds pretty straight-forward right? Wrong.

There’s no doubt that the influencer industry could do with some sort of stricter regulation; the tides move so quickly that sometimes it can be tough for ‘influencers’ themselves to keep up with what’s what, so I can only imagine how complex it must be for followers to understand. Had these new rules embraced the industry and it’s rapid growth and attempted to streamline best practice, I’d be welcoming it with open arms. Instead I feel that these guidelines are another example of blatant disregard as to how the industry actually operates and in it’s most flagrant form actually seek to humiliate influencers in a way that journalists, magazines, TV and radio marketeers are not subjected to.

To be really clear: this is only my opinion based on personal experience as both an influencer (from hobbyist to professional) and as a follower/consumer too.

 

The guidelines are here and the ASA code is published here. Grab a cuppa (wine, you need wine).

 

What is an AD?

In September (2018) the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) stated that an Ad is:

A piece of content that a brand has any element of control over

It’s irrelevant whether payment was in monetary form or in kind (product/experience). ‘Control’ can be as simple as pre-approving an image, stipulating a posting date or asking that you use a specific hashtag. If it falls into this category, it’s an Ad.

Good. I absolutely feel that Ads need to be labelled and agree that payment in kind is still payment. I ask myself: ‘Am I obligated to post about this item/experience?’ If the answer is yes, #AD it.

 

What is a gift?

Gifting usually occurs in 3 different forms:

 

  1. In exchange for obligated content

Example: “We’d love to send you this handbag in return for an Instagram post.”

I’ll weigh up whether or not I want the item, and whether I’m happy to post about it in exchange. If the answer is yes then essentially a contract has been entered into (anyone with contract law knowledge: note the consideration element here) and this is absolutely an Ad. Payment has been made in kind, regardless of whether it’s the same value as my usual rates.

 

  1. For consideration, with no obligation

Example: “Please could we get your mailing address so we can send you this new perfume to try?”

There’s no obligation. I can say yes or no to receiving the product and if it arrives and it smells like Shrek’s feet (not an Ad, I’ve never worked with Dream Works leave me alone) then I can pretend it never existed without breaking any contracts. If I love the smell of Shrek’s feet and I choose to share on my Instagram, I’d flag that it was sent to me as a gift (free). Personally, I  do not class this as an Ad because I don’t class it as payment, rather a gift without any obligation to share. 

 

  1. Totally out of the blue 

Example: a brand or agency has your address on file – this happens a lot – and takes the liberty of sending you something that you were not expecting and had no knowledge would be arriving.

This accounts for about 75% of what comes in to my mailbox every week. Sometimes it’s really appreciated; a lovely surprise! Other times it’s a teeny bit annoying because it can feel wasteful to receive things you never really wanted. You don’t want to appear ungrateful but actually, if they’d just asked you’d have politely declined.

If a surprise gift is my cup of tea and I want to share it then as above I’ll thank the brand for sending it to me and make it clear it was a gift.

Side note: what happens to all the unwanted stuff? Personally I divvy it out between my family/friends or occasionally give items away to followers as a thank you for their support. I also give a lot to charity shops and at Christmas I made a big donation to a hospital who gifted the items to patients. *shines halo* (kidding!)

 

Thoughts on the New Government Influencer Disclosure Guidelines

 

The New Guidelines

 

  1. Any form of reward (money, services, product loan, gifts) is ‘payment’, even if you did not ask for it and got sent it out the blue 

I agree with absolutely all of this, until we get to that last sentence. What? Items received with absolutely no knowledge or ability to decline are payment now? This feels incredibly unfair. To me, it’s the equivalent of your boss plonking a packet of biscuits on your desk to congratulate you on a job well done, obligating you to declare your digestives as part of your annual bonus.

True, gifting is used as a form of bribery in several industries and thus often banned in the cooperate world to avoid corruption allegations. I think where they’re coming from is the angle that the brand is essentially sending it because they hope you’ll feature it (nothing is really free), however classing it as payment – tax nightmare! – and demanding that it’s subsequently declared as an Ad seems like overkill. In all likelihood, this will simply lead to a decline in influencers recording PO Box unboxing vids or sharing first impressions of items on Instagram stories.

I’d always make it clear it was sent to me as a gift, but I do not want to be held responsible for advertising a product I probably haven’t even tried yet and thus am not actively endorsing whatsoever. 

And yes, payment in kind is a recognised form of tender but I’m sure as hell the taxman won’t accept my bill in lipstick form.

 

  1. If you are making reference to your own products, state that the post is a promotion

I’m really excited to see Topshop putting #AD on their own posts. In all seriousness, this just seems a bit silly. Lots of influencers sell products like presets and many even have their own ranges from clothing to stationary that they’ve invested a lot of money into to as a start-up. As much as anything, this is havoc for small businesses who act online as both an independent business owner and as a social media personality, of whatever size.

 

  1. Past relationships must be disclosed in any future reference up to 1 year, even where you’ve spent money on the brand yourself

Essentially, if you’re saying “ooh look at my lovely new Topshop dress that I bought in the sale yesterday”, you should also add “just a reminder, Topshop gifted me a jumper 6 months ago”.

This is probably the most nonsensical point of the lot. Any influencer worth their salt will only work with and promote brands they genuinely love, use and would happily spend their own money on. Suggesting that doing so then needs to be flagged with reference to any previous working relationship with the same brand seems to damage what is actually a really positive example of authenticity. Plus, it’ll make for some confusing captions. I thought the point was transparency here?

 

How to declare?

The guide recognises that social media changes and evolves and states that declarations should be transparent, easy to understand, unambiguous, timely and prominent. All sounds good to me.

It suggests the use of the phrase ‘Advertisement Feature’ or ‘Advertisement Promotion’, which may be abbreviated to #Ad or use of the paid partnership tool on Instagram.

They view phrases such as “thank you to/made possible by [insert brand]” as non-compliant.

If you have relationships with several brands featured in a post, they all must be individually stated in a clear and prominent manner.

This could be really problematic. Either a caption is going to have to read something like Albertine’s example below (it seems satirical, but that is really what the guide is suggesting)

OR where a post is actually an Ad – paid for by the brand in money or in kind and contractually agreed – you’d technically still have to reference anything else featured. A major issue. No brand is going to pay for a post, only to have other brands referenced. 

 

So how can I tell what is actually an Ad?

One of the biggest issues to arise from this I feel is that, if followed religiously, it will actually have the opposite effect of what it’s attending to achieve. If you follow me, how on earth will you know when I’ve actually been paid or contracted to post about a product, versus when I’ve been sent it as a gift, versus when I didn’t even know it was winging itself my way?

I am not just an influencer but also a consumer of Instagram influencers and I absolutely like to know when a post is paid for or an item is gifted. Using the same declaration – Ad – across anything that in anyway endorses a brand makes it impossible to differentiate this. Does that matter? To me, yes.

And hey, if someone I follow is also buying from the brand that is gifting them or has previously paid them then that’s fantastic! 10 authenticity points to Gryffindor. I really, really don’t need to be  signposted to like a moron each and every time they decide to shop with a brand they’ve worked with in a professional capacity too. 

 

So why is it just influencers subject to these standards?

The real kick in the teeth for most influencers is that PR gifting is absolutely not a new practice. Oh no, we all know that magazines have been sent realms of products for years and years, with the hope they’ll want to feature them. How on earth is that any different?

You will never see #AD next to a mascara that a beauty editor has labelled as a ‘must have’ and if you flick to the travel section, there is just no way a feature written by a journo sent to review a new Santorini spa will be marked as an advertisement. They probably won’t even reference that the stay wasn’t paid for, it’s just understood to be part and parcel of the industry.

Why are the government and the ASA holding influencers to a different account? I’m not sure we’ll ever know. I can only assume it comes from a place of misunderstanding; a fear of the unknown and a feeble attempt to regulate an incredibly contemporary and ever-changing industry.

 

A lack of trust?

There was one sentence in the guide that, for me, really stung.

If posts are not declared as Ads – 

“they [followers] may think that an influencer has purchased the product themselves and therefore considers it good value or good quality”

Ouch. In absolutely any industry there are people who are good at their jobs and people who are not and unfortunately it’s usually the latter that spoil things for everyone else. However, this blatant implication that something that is paid or gifted is not also considered good value or quality by the influencer is incredibly undermining.

Influencer marketing arose as people turned away from traditional media – just look at magazine decline – and essentially acts as a form of word of mouth or peer to peer recommendation. A good Influencer-Follower relationship is built on trust: we share openly online, we create a plethora of freely accessible content and we reveal intimate details of our lives. In doing so we earn the trust of our audience.

If you are a good influencer, you will not promote a product or a brand that you do not think is good value or good quality. Period. Trust is the absolute lifeblood of what we do and the between the lines of the above statement is to say that if something is an ad – gifted, paid, delivered spontaneously by carrier pigeon or whatever – then it may not be good value or good quality.

Where these government guidelines could have seeked to streamline the industry and declaration practice through consultation with influencers and brands themselves, they’ve instead simply added to the negative, judgemental and usually belittling discourse surrounding influencer marketing. I’ll bet you my entire #ad #gifted #iboughthalfofit lipstick collection that whoever drafted this has never spoken to an influencer in their life.

 

Thoughts on the New Government Influencer Disclosure Guidelines

Share:

20 Comments

  1. January 25, 2019 / 11:30 am

    You took the words right out of my mouth Beth. Literally could not have said it better myself! xxx

  2. January 25, 2019 / 11:40 am

    The new guidelines are a load of rubbish! Although I do understand being sent gifts with some level of control, I completely agree with gifts being sent out of the blue does not count as payment in my eyes! It’s bloody ridiculous and does not make it clear whatsoever!!

  3. January 25, 2019 / 12:13 pm

    Spot on! Complete double standards compared to the print Industry. I hope this gets the exposure it deserves! Well done lovely x

  4. January 25, 2019 / 12:36 pm

    It has left me totally confused how to post now. I’ve read and reread the guidelines. So if I story wearing a jumper I purchase from a brand who gifted me a different item 6 months ago I need to explain that on my story? Or only if I am mention said jumper? It seems mad as I obviously work with brands that I actually buy from otherwise I wouldn’t be promoting them. Meaning everything about me is an AD. I feel like Instagram isn’t the place for me anymore to be completely honest. I am always transparent but this feels so hard to get right. 🙈

  5. K
    January 25, 2019 / 12:56 pm

    See the thing is I like to look at Instagram to see things that inspire me or just to people watch, it’s my equivalent of being at Starbucks. Sometimes it’s nice to see a product I might like to buy but currently it’s all the time. Along with any big influencer going on about how few views their pictures are getting. I get it’s your job but I also just sometimes want to have a bit of a browse without being sold to all the time, or hear “I love this mascara it’s my all time favourite” from a blogger about 3 different products in less than 6 months (have seen that several times). I’m on a limited income so when I buy something based on a bloggers opinion it really is a big deal. I get it’s a pain for you but I really appreciate being able to transparently see when I’m being advertised to and scroll on by.

    • Beth Sandland
      Author
      January 25, 2019 / 1:02 pm

      That’s fair! I absolutely think adverts (paid, payment in kind or just gifts) need to be flagged so you’re aware. I’d hope people are only promoting things they only believe in, but there are always bad eggs. Totally see how it can become consumerism heavy and I think the best solution is to streamline who you’re following x

  6. Maggie
    January 25, 2019 / 2:17 pm

    You literally said it all !!! Wouldn’t change or ad a word! Totally agree… not sure how this new guidelines apply to The UE or if it’s just for the UK but either way it’s just confusing and near to the ridiculous !

  7. Jess
    January 25, 2019 / 2:46 pm

    I understand why they want to regulate the industry but the new guidelines are causing more confusion than clarity! I mean people are less likely to do it now because they don’t understand it!

    xoxo
    Jess
    The Crown Wings | UK Travel & Lifestyle Blog

  8. January 25, 2019 / 2:57 pm

    YES BETH. This is absolutely everything I’ve been thinking 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻

  9. January 25, 2019 / 4:33 pm

    THANK YOU for writing this! Written so clearly and eloquently I finally feel like I understand this bizarre ruling.
    Declaring ‘out of the blue’ gifts really ruffled my feathers too.
    Instead of simplifying things, I feel they have over-complicated everything and truly disheartened many people.
    I blog/YouTube for as a hobby and have started making enough to be proud of. I absolutely dread filling my Insta captions with a load of jargon about payments rather than just simply explain things in my own way. I didn’t even think about the comparison with journalists and magazines so thank you for that!
    You did the research which the government neglected to do🙄.
    Bravo Beth!!👏🏽

  10. January 25, 2019 / 6:39 pm

    You spoke my mind👏 I live in Norway and the Norwegian government has also issued similar regulations. It’s absolutely ridiculous, tbh. I wish they would try and invest some more time and thoughts into understanding this new market.🤦‍♀️

  11. Elizabeth
    January 26, 2019 / 8:39 pm

    I do not agree with you. I completely support the new regulations because influencers should be transparent and honest about the products and the things they “recommend” if they’re paying you for it be damn honest and if they don’t paying and sending unexpected gift you can also contact the brand and say you won’t make a post of their products but thanks or instead return the dam items, is it that hard really? I don’t think so. You can’t compare influencers with an magazine editor cause at the end people who read the magazines don’t know them so the “influence” they have is not as equal as a influencer have on social media, take in consideration that there’s thousands of people who really follows these influencers, and these influencers become an inspiration or a example or beauty or a lifestyle role model , so yes! It’s so important to be honest with your followers, and telling them “hey I’m getting pay for promoting this” and “hey I got pay for promoting this brand” doesn’t matter if they’re not currently paying. It’s about to be honest and stop lying to your followers. Since they may believe you really use that product because you love it. That shouldn’t happen, all relationships should be based on honesty, even the social media ones. So no I’m not agree with you, stop being a brat about it. Accept it with maturity.

    • Beth Sandland
      Author
      January 26, 2019 / 11:13 pm

      Wow. I’m all up for mature discussion and welcome opinion, I am not up for being called names or spoken to in the tone you’re using. So unnecessary and so ironic that you’ve told me to be mature but written a comment like this.

      To be absolutely crystal clear: I fully support Ads being disclosed and gifting being disclosed and have always done so myself. I abhor you using the phrase ‘stop lying’ and i absolutely only share products I love, whether paid, gifted or whether I’ve bought it. Only about 20% (maximum) of my content is ever paid for.

      As both an influencer AND a consumer, I want to know when a post is paid for and when an item is gifted. I fully expect anyone being paid/being gifted to declare it clearly.

      Totally disagree with you on magazines. I’ve spent a fortune on them since about the age of 6 and I used to buy the products recommended religiously. It’s only now that I know they were all sent for free and how much mags favour their high-fee paying advertisers. Sure, influencers have thousands of readers. Magazines have millions!

      Thanks for your input, in future I’d ask that if you’re going to weigh in you find a way to do so politely.

  12. January 28, 2019 / 1:52 pm

    Such a well written post! This has really clarified things for me, and totally agree with every word you’ve written so thank you! Also: that dress!

  13. January 28, 2019 / 2:59 pm

    I have a blog but I also have a full-time job in marketing, so I really understand both sides of this. Every industry operates with rules and guidelines. In marketing, they’re to protect the consumer. It’s pretty widely known that there has to be truth in marketing – and that (obviously) is going to include influencer marketing.

    It’s actually kind of annoying all the fuss I’ve seen bloggers/influencers make about this updated changes – because there’s really nothing new. (Not if you’ve already been 100% honest along the way.) When I talk about a product, I have always disclosed if it’s something I bought – was given as a gift – or given as part of paid promotion.

    If you’re given a gift from your grandma that you hate, you’re inclined to maybe act to her like you like it more than you actually do. That same thing trickles into PR. When your boss gives you biscuits – no, you don’t have to claim them on your taxes – but if you go on to social media and rave on and on about those biscuits, doesn’t it make sense to mention they were a gift? Yes.

    As for sponsored posts on products, many actually recruit people to promote a product before they’ve even actually had the chance to try it. For that reason alone, I’m turned off by many sponsored content opportunities. Essentially, my opinion shouldn’t be bought and neither should anyone else’s. When you have money behind something and a general goal of not hurting anyone’s feelings, it can lead to misleading reviews that in turn lead to people wasting their money.

    Sorry for the bit of a rant – I haven’t chimed in on these changes yet and after watching so many bloggers/influencers be sarcastic and a bit snotty about them, have a lot to say…apparently! (LOL) Basically, if influencers want to be taken seriously as a credible actual business…they have to operate as one and with that comes following industry guidelines. They’re not that confusing. They take minimal effort on a creator’s part. It’s pretty simple, really.

    xo – Kelly
    http://www.dreaminlace.com

    • Beth Sandland
      Author
      January 28, 2019 / 11:05 pm

      Hey Kelly! Thanks for your input. I actually don’t disagree with you and I really hope I made it clear in my post that I am ALL for Ads/payment in product whatever being declared. I also hope I didn’t come across as sarcastic or ‘snotty’.

      I really don’t have an issue with regulation, in fact it shows the industry is being taken more seriously which is something we’ve all been wanting – no? I do have an issue with the assumption that if something is an AD (in any form) it can’t be a genuine opinion and your comment seems to suggest that too. Fundamentally I think that comes down to their being good and bad people in any job.

      My issue with the new guidelines is I’m not sure they DO provide the most transparent experience for the consumer – I’ve had so many messages from non-bloggers on Instagram getting confused about what’s what. I fully welcome disclosure, as you said that’s not new, but I don’t necessarily think the guidelines have nailed it because simply labelling (almost) all product reference an ‘AD’ to me isn’t strictly transparent.

      Personally I want to know when money was exchanged (frankly, the point at which people are more likely to say something financially motivated), when it’s contractual gifting and when it’s just gifting. From my experience, certainly with the latter, any ‘big’ blogger is so inundated with products the ones that do make it ARE good. That’s not to say I don’t think this should be disclosed, I’d just like (as a consumer too) differentiation.

      • Kelly
        January 29, 2019 / 7:52 pm

        Right, except the guidelines say you can label gifted items as “gifted” “freebie” — or even “complimentary” — when mentioning it.

        And yes, obviously paid/sponsored posts promoting can come from a legitimate love for the product. I’ve accepted paid/sponsored posts myself from brands I love to promote products I fully support. When doing so, I think it’s extremely important to disclose that, though, – as I feel we all do. There are literally a million ways to disclose paid/sponsored content in a way that’s genuine…but also informs readers/viewers that money has changed hands.

        Working in marketing, I’d say it all comes down to the classic “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” The guidelines ask these things to be disclosed, but also give a lot of freedom on how to do so. Anyone who takes issues with these guidelines needs a bit of an attitude adjustment. Otherwise, perhaps they do have something to hide? (I’m sure we all can name off at at least 10 names of people who routinely conceal sponsored posts, affiliate links, etc.)

        As a whole (definitely not saying you), there’s been a lack of professionalism across the blogger/influencer community in response to the new guidelines. If we’re trying to be taken seriously, we need to act seriously. That’s all I’m saying. <3

        • Beth Sandland
          Author
          January 29, 2019 / 10:29 pm

          There absolutely are, but I think the guide makes it really clear the word ‘AD’ (or advertising promotion etc etc) is required. Anyway, I think we’re on the same page – I’m totally here for disclosure!

  14. Liza
    January 29, 2019 / 10:27 pm

    I’m genuinely delighted by the new guidelines, and like other commenters am disappointed/ disgusted by some of the poor attitudes shown by influencers in recent days.
    You mention gifts out of the blue, but this isn’t the followers issue – it’s an issue the influencer has to take up with the PR agency. Perhaps if enough influencers flag it as an issue, the gifts out of the blue will cease.
    If you purchased a top from M&S at retail price yet you worked with M&S in November, I don’t feel it should be tagged ad but perhaps it would be helpful to have a single landing page on your blog which lists relationships and the correlating periods.
    You mention bad eggs and good eggs, but followers particularly younger ones will struggle to differentiate. Younger consumers aren’t your target market, but we cannot have different guidelines for different target markets. I also struggle to recall any influencer posting about Shrek feet perfume, so when influencers only post about what they love and omit the fails, and only feature (compensated) content, its hard for followers to judge. Influencers I hope will welcome the opportunity to restore their authenticity in a crowded online space.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

INSTAGRAM @BETHSANDLAND

111   1845
87   1777
36   1081
162   3156
89   1827

Follow on Instagram