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ASA issues warning to influencers amid ‘widespread failure’ to disclose ads

By John Glenday | Reporter

March 18, 2021 | 6 min read

Social media influencers who flout marketing rules have been warned by the UK's advertising watchdog that they face being named and shamed, following a spot check of Instagram posts.

A female fashion vlogger broadcasting from a home studio.

The ASA has put influencers flouting its content rules on notice

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) trawled the Instagram accounts of 122 UK influencers over three weeks last September to verify that no adverts buried among 24,000 posts went undeclared.

Instead, the team uncovered evidence of ‘widespread failure‘ to respect the rules.

An influencer crackdown

  • Influencers face increased scrutiny of their behaviour after the ASA calculated that one in four Instagram Stories it assessed could be classed as advertising – but only 35% of the examples it looked at were labelled and identifiable as such.

  • Widespread flouting of the rules has prompted a crackdown, with the ASA warning that ignorance is no defence given the plethora of advice, training and resources available.

  • The ASA reports widespread inconsistency of disclosure across Stories, and notes particularly when a segment of advertising content spans multiple Stories, each of which must be classed as an ad by law.

  • Confused labeling results in situations where the original post may be accurately labeled as an advert, but its corresponding Story is not.

  • The watchdog has also called out attempts to skirt the rules by employing a hard to read typeface or otherwise masking the declaration using the page design in an obvious attempt to play down the paid-for nature of their content.

  • Other influencers were found to have fallen back on the use of ‘#affiliate‘ and ‘#aff‘ to pass off affiliate content without any further effort at disclosure being made.

  • Lastly, the ASA has looked at the emergence of own-brands ads in which influencers promote products to which they have a direct connection, relying only on bios or past posts for people to join the dots.

  • Combined, these antics make it extraordinarily difficult for consumers to distinguish precisely what is an advert, evidenced by a 55% rise in complaints received over 2020 to 3,144 – of which 61% related to Instagram.

  • This follows surveys suggesting that 49% of the public want stricter rules to be introduced around repetitive influencer advertising.

  • The ASA recommends the #ad hashtag at a minimum as the clearest way to denote advertising on social media or the use of formal disclosure tools such as Instagram‘s Paid Partnership functionality to make this clear.

‘No excuse’

  • Faced with widespread disregard for the rules the ASA is clamping down hard.

  • Repeat offenders could find themselves blacklisted on a non-compliance roll of shame on the ASA website, publicly outed as an offender using targeted paid search ads and further action from social media platforms and the Competition and Markets Authority.

  • ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “There’s simply no excuse not to make clear to the public when positive messages in posts have been paid-for by a brand. While some influencers have got their houses in order, our monitoring shows how much more there is to do. We’ve given influencers and brands fair warning. We’re now targeting our follow-up monitoring and preparing for enforcement action.”

  • Phil Smith, director-general at ISBA added: “The ASA’s disclosure rules are there for all to see – and are mandatory. Non-compliance is clearly unacceptable.

  • “We are currently working with members on a influencer marketing code of conduct for brands, agencies, and influencers which we intend will raise standards, enable authentic and quality ads, and help deliver the transparency consumers expect and deserve.”

  • Last October Instagram warned that it would reprimand influencers and celebrities who failed to adequately disclose advertising.

  • In 2019 the Competition and Markets Authority obtained a formal commitment from 16 celebrities including Alexa Chung and Ellie Goulding to abide by rules requiring that any gifts, loans or profits be declared when writing Instagram posts.

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