Gen Z consumers are more likely to be found on TikTok than watching linear TV. For brands hoping to reach this young demographic, influencers must be a core pillar of their marketing strategy. There are strict rules in place stipulating that influencers must disclose any ads in their social media content, in order to keep the landscape transparent.
However the UK’s regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), has had difficulties enforcing these rules. In June 2021, it launched a kind of wall of shame – a webpage that named influencers who had repeatedly failed to disclose their ads.
Last month the ASA announced that it was stepping up its efforts to crackdown on influencers who persisted in breaking rules, despite previous warnings. It took out ads on Instagram warning consumers about six non-compliant influencers.
A persistent minority of rulebreakers
When it comes to disclosing ads, the rules seem fairly straightforward.
“In most cases, the use of #ad (or similar) in an upfront and prominent manner is the clearest way of communicating the commercial nature of social media content,” states the ASA. Platforms like Instagram have also introduced tools for content creators to easily flag paid content.
So why are the ASA having to take further action if the rules are relatively easy to follow?
The ASA’s announcement of the escalation of sanctions was backed by a stat that just 35 percent of content in their March 2021 “proactive monitoring sweep” were compliant with disclosure rules.
Scott Guthrie, a board member of the Influencer Marketing Trade Body (IMTB), stresses that this statistic should be read with additional context.
“The 35 percent refers to a report published in March 2021 by the ASA. This was no randomised, representative sample set of the influencer landscape in the UK,” he said, “The ASA’s data set was of influencers who were already known to the regulator for flouting disclosure rules.”
Guthrie believes the industry as a whole is actually improving on this issue, and points to ASA stats that show complaints about influencer marketing have fallen year-on-year.
Jim Meadows is chief strategy officer at influencer marketing platform Takumi. He says he doesn’t understand why some influencers persist in breaking ad rules.
“I don’t understand the reasoning that people would want to break those rules. For me, I think the consumer is an intelligent one and understands that influencers fund their content and their communities through paid promotions of products,” Meadows said. “Provided that content entertains, informs and excites, then why would you not want to disclose it?”
On the other hand, Scott Guthrie believes that there is a commercial incentive for some influencers to break the rules, that is not tempered enough by the penalties.
“It’s not so much that people don’t know about the rules. It is more about that people have taken a commercial decision to ignore the rules,” Guthrie said.
He adds that the equation of risk versus reward is out of balance.
“Given the likelihood of getting caught and the penalty once caught, is it worth knowingly flouting the advertising rules and regulations? Until the equation is re-weighted, until there is a real fear of loss of earnings, some will continue to flout the rules and show apparent contempt for the regulators,” he said.
The profile of rule-breakers
Although the harshest sanction non-compliant influencers can currently face from the ASA is an ad taken out against them, content creators can risk damaging their relationships with brands if they do not follow the rules. Non-compliance from influencers promoting products is a brand safety issue, and it’s unlikely that they’ll want to work with these individuals in the future.
Takumi’s Jim Meadows says that content creators will ensure they are on the right side of the rules if they want to be taken seriously.
“I think influencers that want to be professional creators, build their income stream, and want to be professional, have a responsibility to their own careers to fulfill regulation as part of their job. You wouldn’t work on a building site as a contractor and not follow health and safety, regulation or guidelines,” he said.
The six influencers that the ASA has taken ads out against are Francesca Allen, Jess Gale, Eve Gale, Belle Hassan, Jodie Marsh and Anna Vakili. Almost all of these influencers, with the exception of Marsh, are former Love Island contestants. Marsh is also a reality star, having appeared on shows like Celebrity Big Brother.
These reality stars are different from the kind of influencer that IMTB members would use. The IMTB ensures that all their members stick to the regulations.
Takumi’s creators meanwhile must submit posts for approval, meaning that all ads are clearly flagged as such.
These kinds of professional influencers differ from those for whom social media may be a side venture to their TV careers.
“It brings up questions around what an influencer is. The idea of a celebrity or reality star with a big Instagram following has been conflated with a true social media influencer, who’s taken the time to hone the skill and develop a community,” said the IMTB’s Guthrie.
Guthrie adds that they may also be managed in a different way.
“They will have traditional talent managers, more than talent managers who are digital-first. These kinds of influencers often do short, tentpole campaigns with brands. Whereas the industry is heading towards longer, or ambassadorial relationships” he said.