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.
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:
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.
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.
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!)
The New Guidelines
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.
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.
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.