Influencer posts dominate online complaints to UK ad watchdog

Over the past 12 months, the ASA has issued warnings to a number of influencers and brand partners, including Zoella and Asos / Instagram

Fresh data from the UK’s advertising regulator suggests the public is now applying greater scrutiny to ads they see from influencers online as brands continue to up their spend on the medium.

One in four complaints about online advertising submitted to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2019 took issue with sponsored influencer posts.

The UK ad watchdog’s annual report details how it resolved 34,717 complaints about 24,886 ads last year. Of these, 16,767 complaints were made in relation to online ads while 9,971 corresponded to TV ads.

Of the objections against online ads, 4,401 of these related to a total of 3,670 ads from influencers, with the nascent sector accounting for 26% of all online ad complaints last year.

The figures indicate both an increased awareness from the public about what is permitted from influencers, as well as a tougher approach from the ASA which has clamped down on misleading or poorly labelled sponsored content over the past 12 months.

In September 2019, the ASA recommended that #ad was necessary “as a minimum” on sponsored posts after research it conducted with Ipsos Mori found that such a well understood disclosure, such as #ad, increased the likelihood of the UK public to distinguish paid-for content as something that was ‘definitely an ad’.

Over the past 12 months, the ASA has issued warnings to a number of influencers and brand partners over ‘misleading’ or ‘unclear’ ads, including Zoella and Asos and a number of ITV Love Island contestants.

In February this year, following feedback from influencers and ad agencies, the regulator teamed up with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to issue an abridged version of their guide to ad labelling and disclosure on social media platforms. The overhauled advice portal directs influencers towards a host of resources – including simplified flowcharts and infographics – nudging them to present their content correctly the first time around to avoid a run in with regulators.

The ASA’s message to influencers, and the brands using their social media feeds to promote their products, is simple: "Make it clear… there isn’t really much more to it than that."

However, some influencers (and their agencies) argued that there was a general lack of understanding around the current rules, which cover everything from how influencers should signpost affiliate marketing and gifting to straight-up paid-for posts.

The ASA’s annual report claimed that over the course of 2019, its official guide for influencers was downloaded over 15,000 times.

Commenting on the findings, Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, partner at media law firm Lewis Silkin said: “Complaints about social media ads continued to dominate the agenda in 2019, and the ASA and CMA updated their guidance on social media disclosures yet again in February 2020.

"There continues to be a lack of satisfactory research on the issue of disclosures, and while the ASA has got it right in some instances, we have seen some frankly odd decisions and tunnel vision from the ASA on the issue of disclosures in 2019 and early 2020.”

Using tech to tackle complaints

The report also highlights how ASA and its sister organisation Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) are changing the way they work, through a combination of prioritisation (taking an ‘education first’ approach to help deliver lighter touch regulation where appropriate), improved partnership working and proactively taking action to tackle misleading and irresponsible ads.

The body has also invested in digital avatar monitoring technology to take action against gambling brands that are targeting kids. In 2019, this AI tech allowed it to visit over 250 websites 196,000 times. In turn, the ASA captured and reviewed 95,000 ads and took action against the small number of ads where the rules were being broken, in order to protect children.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “Harnessing innovative technology to tackle misleading or irresponsible ads is playing a big part in helping us deliver more effective regulation for consumers and business.

“And we have some exciting plans ahead, including investment in data science and machine learning. All of which is enabling us to be more proactive and fleet of foot in delivering our ambition to make UK ads responsible, wherever they appear.”

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the ASA has shifted its way of working to tackle ads that pray on or exploit people's health anxieties.

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