The UK advertising watchdog has published a report into which kind of labels help people understand when influencer posts are paid for, reminding brands and creators that “upfront disclosures” such as #ad are “necessary as a minimum”.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has unveiled a comprehensive review into the space, which it says dispels the argument that signposting isn’t needed when drafting influencer-published ads on social media.
The ASA's chief executive, Guy Parker, said the research indicated members of the public can find it hard to identify when an influencer is advertising a product or service.
“It’s crucial that ads are labelled clearly," he said. "Our message to influencers and brands couldn’t be clearer: be upfront with followers, for example by using #ad."
Along with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the ASA already has strict guidelines around how influencer content should be flagged – covering both posts that have been sponsored and those that contain products that have been gifted.
However, the regulator is issuing a stark reminder that it will police brands who fail to adhere to the rules accordingly.
The caution comes as household advertisers are upping their investment in the space, despite concerns about transparency, influencer fraud and measurement rumbling on.
So can people actuallly tell when an ad, is an ad?
Over the past 18 months, the ASA has consulted members of the public, as well as academic literature, to decipher which kind of indicators make people recognise when a social media post from an influencer is an ad.
A finding consistent across the ASA research was that for an influencer post to be obviously identifiable, a label must first be noticed and then understood.
Crucially, a visible and well understood disclosure, such as #ad, increased the likelihood of participants distinguishing influencer ads as something that was ‘definitely an ad’.
The ASA’s 1,600 participants (most of which identified as ‘regular social media users’) were split into four groups and each participant saw seven examples of social media posts that were categorised as influencer advertising, including Instagram and Twitter posts.
The four individual research groups were presented with different versions of the same post to understand the extent to which changes to the wording and placement of labels enabled respondents to identify that post as advertising.
Eight of the original influencer posts were tested alongside other versions with labels added or repositioned. In every instance, the original versions of the posts were less likely to be scored as ‘definitely an ad’ than all of the alternative versions
Content included ads from the likes of Zoella, reality star James Lock and presenter Lorraine Kelly.
The eight highest-scoring influencer posts – which all had labels that had been added or changed by the ASA – received an average score of 41% by adults who gave a score of 9 or 10 out of 10 (‘definitely an ad’).
The most significant difference between variations of a post was recorded for the Zoella. In total, 34% of adults identified her original post as ‘definitely an ad’, compared to 57% of those who saw a version with #Advert added to the bottom right hand corner of the picture in a colour that contrasted clearly with the background – highlighting how the presentation of a post also has a role to play in signposting sponsored content.
The research also found that a notable proportion of participants wouldn’t be confident in explaining the meaning of words or phrases used to signify ads on social media.
Most (60%) said they understood what ‘advertisement’, ‘advert’ or 'ad' (51%) meant. However, this dropped when labels became more opaque, with just 34% and 19% saying they would be self-assured in explaining the meaning of ‘spon’ or ‘sp’ effectively.
What next for influencer marketing?
The ASA has said it will “now consider carefully” the outcomes of this work.
It will also follow-up on the themes and issues brought to light by its research and target those parties involved in influencer advertising to make sure they’re following the rules.
This includes hosting an influencer training event on 1 October with the CMA at which the pair will further explain when a post counts as an ad and how and when they should be labelled.
The ASA will also share the findings of this new, original research with other regulators, both domestically and internationally, to facilitate ongoing discussions about how best to make sure ads are obviously identifiable as ads.
Darryl Taylor, general counsel at We Are Social, which works with the likes of Adidas and Netflix, isn’t convinced of the regulator’s efforts, however.
“When an influencer doesn’t use #ad in a post, people don’t know whether the post is an ad. This is hardly surprising,” he said.
“Look Mr. ASA, we all get it. The problem is, many influencers simply do not care.”
He continued: “If the ASA (and the CMA for that matter) want to make real traction, then influencers also need to be put on the naughty step and these bodies need to show their teeth, starting with publicly calling out influencers and brands that flaunt the rules, with more severe punishments thereafter.
“Repeating the mantra '#ad #ad #ad' is not going to get anywhere.”