UK advertising watchdog report identifies high rate of influencers repeatedly flouting ad disclosure rules.
Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published an analysis of influencer posts. Its purpose: to determine how effective UK influencers are at signposting when their posts are ads.
The ASA's Influencer monitoring report (March 2021) - 'Influencer Ad Disclosure on Social Media: A report into Influencers’ rate of compliance of ad disclosure on Instagram' is less about awareness of the influencer marketing regulations, however, and more about the sharpness of the self-regulator's teeth in enforcing those rules.
The report findings are based on a three-week monitoring exercise undertaken by the ASA to review the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers. The review period was during September 2020.
No randomised, representative sample set
This was no randomised, representative sample set of the influencer landscape in the UK, however. The ASA's data set was of influencers who were already known to the regulator for flouting disclosure rules.
According to the ASA's report: "Influencers were primarily chosen on the basis of having been previously contacted about non-disclosure of advertising by the ASA, either in response to a complaint or via our self-initiated, proactive engagements with them on the matter".
Those serial offenders no doubt weighed up the consequences of non-compliance and made a commercial decision to flout the ASA's rules.
This was a biased sample - though clearly flagged as such by the ASA.
No apportionment of content to creator
We learn from the report that 24,208 Instagram Stories posts, IGTV and Reels were assessed for compliance rates as part of the ASA review. Of those 23.7% (5,732) were found to be advertisements. And, of those ads just 35% (2,014) was found to be clearly labelled and obviously identifiable as such. 2-in-3 Instagram Stories advertisements being non compliant is a damning statistic.
Again these figures are open to misinterpretation. The analysis is based on the total number of posts published. The report does not disclose how many of the 122 influencers failed to meet disclosure regulations. Was it the majority? Or a handful of repeat offenders producing prodigious amounts of ill-marked ads?
The report does not disclose how the 24,000 pieces of content were analysed. The ASA has been working closely with Brandwatch as part of its digital strategy. We can assume the monitoring was automated. Could there have been a margin of error in disclosure categorisation? If so, to what extent? It would be difficult to automate the process by which to guarantee correct distinction between advertisement content and genuinely organic content which objectively promotes a brand, service, or product without any material relationship between brand and influencer.
The influencer marketing industry is growing at speed. Last year the industry was worth circa $10 billion. This is 20x its 2015 size. By 2022 brands are set to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing, per Insider Intelligence estimates, based on Mediakix data.
Such growth spurts are accompanied by oversized growing pains. Like all areas of work, there are those who stick to the rules but also those who do not.
Advertisers, agencies and influencers
Brands are held equally responsible as influencers for failing to adequately disclose advertising content. Advertisers, influencers and the agents who work on their behalf - the influencer marketing agencies and talent agencies - need to work together to ensure consumers aren't hoodwinked into thinking advertorial is editorial. This means, adhering to ASA rules and Competition and Markets Authority regulations. It also means forming professional bodies and writing codes of conduct specific to influencer marketing.
ASA’s ladder of sanctions
The ASA keeps advertisers and influencers in check by operating a ladder of sanctions. The first sanction is negative publicity. Every formal ruling gets published on the ASA website.
Serial cases of non-compliance may be published on the ASA's non-compliant advertisers' page aka their wall of shame. The page is heavily optimised for search engines - the aim is to make sure that if you're searching for that particular brand, you should see that page over and above the actual brand listing on Google.
The ASA can work next with social media platforms to have content removed if advertisers still refuse to comply with disclosure regulations.
Trading Standards are the ultimate backstop. The ASA can pass the file of a repeat offender over to these local authority departments to enforce consumer protection legislation. The case may then be pursued through the courts. That might mean a criminal case but usually, it will mean civil action being taken against a brand.
Key report findings
The advertising rules apply across platforms and media but the monitoring exercise focussed on posts on Instagram because complaints to the ASA about Influencer ad disclosure tend to relate to this particular platform. 61% of influencer complaints in 2020 were about ad disclosure on Instagram.
In summary, the ASA found:
Inconsistent disclosure across Stories - when a piece of ad content spans a number of consecutive Stories, unless it’s absolutely clear that this is part of the same posting, each Story must be disclosed as an ad
Inconsistent disclosure across Stories, IGTV, Reels, posts – we noted instances where a post would be accurately disclosed as an ad but a corresponding Story was not
Visibility of ad labels – where Stories were labelled as ads, we noted labels were sometimes in a small font, obscured by the platform architecture or otherwise difficult to spot; mainly due to being in a very similar colour to the background of the Story where it was placed
Affiliate content is still an ad – we noted the use of #affiliate or #aff with no additional upfront disclosure; those labels are not likely to be enough on their own to disclose to users the advertising nature of the content
Own-brand ads – Influencers should not rely on bios or past posts to make it clear to consumers that they are connected to a product.