UK ad regulator singles out Instagram for failing to label paid-for content

An Instagram post from makeup blogger Sheikhbeauty was subject to scrutiny from the ASA - it has since been updated

The chief executive of UK regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), has put the spotlight on Instagram as the platform on which brands and influencers are failing to explicitly label paid-for content.

Speaking at a Westminster Media Forum on the matter today (21 September), Guy Parker said adequately signposted native, affiliate and influencer advertising is simply "not where we need [it] to be."

The ASA said it is planning its own research into the way this kind of advertising appears online, with more details to be issued later in the year.

Parker's comments come amid an increased crackdown by watchdogs on social media stars and advertisers who fail to correctly disclose content as being sponsored.

In the UK in particular the nuances of policing the influencer space have been explored by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the ASA's regulatory arm the Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP); which issued a fresh set of guidelines for advertisers and creators in March.

The ASA has spiked several influencer campaigns this year across various platforms, including an Instagram post from makeup blogger Sheikhbeauty. In June, the blogger shared an image promoting herbal brand Flat Tummy Tea with her 350,000 followers without making it clear it was an ad.

'Teething problems'

For its part, Instagram is taking step to combat the problem of undisclosed advertising. It began slowly rolling out a number of features to let influencers better signpost sponsored content and share campaign metrics directly with brands.

The platform's 'paid partnerships' tag is designed to let creators communicate to its 700 million-strong userbase when they are working in collaboration with a business.

As per CAP's guidelines – which ask advertisers and creators to warn consumers that content is paid for before they engage with it – Instagram's tool labels content as being sponsored above images and videos in users' feeds as well as within the Stories section of the app.

However, this form of tagging brands is not compulsory and not everyone has access; meaning many influencers are using hashtags like #sponcon and #sp to flag commercial posts.

In response to Parker's comments an Instagram spokesperson said that after reviewing feedback from its pilot partners around the new tool it has expanded access for creators and businesses. "We are also expanding access to Insights to brands with an existing business page and will be implementing new policy and enforcement rules," the company added. "We understand that it will take some time for creators and businesses to become comfortable with this new tool. We will be working closely with both creators and businesses to help them understand the new tool and policies."

James Erskine, managing director of influencer agency Social Circle, told The Drum that parity is the goal of all creators on the platform.

"To me, Instagram's feature is a tremendous first step. There are some teething issues - for example the [name of the] business partner being obscured by the picture behind it; but, all said, we would love to see other media as tightly regulated," he said.

Comparing the Instagram debate to the way commercial placement on TV is regulated - including the use of the 'P' symbol before soaps to indicate product placement - he added: "This is great, but as people are tuning in throughout the episode , doesn't that rotating ‘P’ need to be above every single product? I am being slightly facetious to make a point."

One option discussed during a panel at the event on Thursday (21 September), which featured viewpoints from the CMA's project director of online reviews and endorsements as well as Christie Dennehy-Neil, senior public policy manager at the Internet Advertising Bureau, was introducing a universal symbol to label branded content.

Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. She primarily writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca