When is an #ad not an ad? When it’s native, organic-branded influencer #content on YouTube, Snapchat or Instagram.
Or so some of those digital trendsetters appear to have believed when taking money from brands to promote their products. Unfortunately for them, advertising regulators don’t agree.
Music Ally has covered the emerging sector of influencer marketing before, but recent months have highlighted the issues when paid-for content isn’t identified clearly enough as an ad.
Earlier in August, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tightened up its rules for sponsored posts, warning that the common practice of including hashtags like #spon in social media posts isn’t a clear enough disclosure.
“If consumers don’t read the words, then there is no effective disclosure […] If you have seven other hashtags at the end of a tweet and it’s mixed up with all these other things, it’s easy for consumers to skip over that,” the FTC’s Michael Ostheimer told Bloomberg.
“The real test is, did consumers read it and comprehend it?” Or, for video posts, possibly did they listen, because disclosures can be spoken out loud.
The FTC crackdown came a month after it reached a settlement with games publisher Warner Bros over a marketing campaign for its Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor console game in late 2014.
According to the FTC, Warner Bros paid YouTubers “thousands of dollars” to publish YouTube videos about the game, generating more than 5.5m views.
The problem was not that the influencers failed to disclose the payment – they did – but rather that they failed to disclose it “adequately”.
For example, the disclosures were placed in the description box below videos, often “below the fold” – only visible if viewers clicked on the ‘show more’ button in the description. Did consumers read it and comprehend it? The FTC’s view was that many didn’t and were thus misled.
This month, a campaigning group called Truth In Advertising has gone after social media’s ruling clan, the Kardashians, for similar reasons.
It claims to have found 100 posts on the Instagram accounts of Kim Kardashian West, Khloe Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner that do not disclose their commercial basis clearly enough. The group wants the FTC to investigate.
This is not a new topic of debate. In November 2014, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against Mondelez UK over five YouTube videos featuring influencers competing to lick cream off Oreo cookies – without adequate disclosure.
In August 2015, the ASA published new guidance for vloggers producing sponsored videos, advertorials controlled by brands, using product placement in their own videos, and even promoting their own products, or those that had been sent to them for free by companies.
YouTube and other social platforms feel like a brave new world in many respects, advertising included. Yet as the ASA and FTC have taken pains to point out, branded influencer content falls into the domain of well-established advertising regulation.