Rumblings were heard across social media recently when Bloomberg reported that the FTC will be stepping up enforcement of sponsored social media posts. According to Bloomberg, brands spend $255 million each month for sponsored, or influencer, posts.
The issue is disclosure. The FTC took Warner Brothers to task recently for the company’s YouTube campaign featuring paid endorsements of its video game “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.” The influencer posts either did not indicate that they were paid for by Warner Brothers, or the information was visible only with a click-through. (If you’re interested on the FTC’s rules for endorsements, here’s the guide.)
The FTC says that advertisers should be responsible for ensuring that sponsorship is clear to viewers, which usually means adding the hashtags #ad, #sp, #sponsored, or #collab. But the FTC says it’s not okay to have a sponsorship hashtag crowded among 20 others at the end of a post, where it’s tough to pick out. Also, #sp and #spon aren’t clear enough, according to the agency.
Some say there’s a gray area with every new social media platform, and there’s no reason to identify a post as paid for. But the FTC is having none of it—the rules are the rules, it says, regardless of whether the content shows up on Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, or any yet-to-be invented platform. As one influencer told Bloomberg in another article, she does it the other way around: If she doesn’t post that she hasn’t been paid for a post, then that means she probably has.
Close, but not quite?
To get an idea of the money involved, how it works, and why this is such a gray area, this Women’s Wear Daily piece gets into the nitty-gritty, and also the root of some of the confusion—it doesn’t fit tidily into any of the traditional concepts of advertising.
There are similar problems in the UK, where the rules are set by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). The problem is with the interpretation of content control and payment. The Contents and Markets Authority has recently been going after unidentified sponsored postings. (The ASA set standards; the CMA is the enforcer of consumer protections, among other things.)
A recent survey by SheSpeaks found that many influencers who accept payment for posts have been asked to keep the sponsorship a secret. SheSpeaks CEO Aliza Freud said that she believes this is due to brands not knowing the rules. But this desire for secrecy does beg the question of why—are these brands worried that paid postings will turn off their customers, or dilute the influencer’s influence?
But there’s also been a bit of a backlash from influencers themselves. The lack of transparency, the difficulty in measuring the impact of campaigns, and the sometimes fraught relationship and expectations on both sides has led to some friction. The Tumblr Who Pays Influencers is an attempt to shed a bit of light on how it works and who’s paying what for what. Some influencers also feel that their work isn’t valued and worry about alienating their fan base.
On the other side are the social media executives, like the one who did an anonymous Q&A with Digiday last spring. S/he thinks that the influencer trend is already on the wane. If that is true, the digital economy will need another outlet for brands and advertisers to hawk their products that leverages the personality and celebrity of influencers without alienating consumers with an overload of posts. Authenticity is a difficult thing to buy.
For more on social marketing, see 100 Top Digital Marketing Influencers And Brands.