UK advertising watchdog report identifies high rate of influencers repeatedly flouting ad disclosure rules.
Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) publishes an analysis of influencer posts. Its purpose: to determine how effective UK influencers are at signposting when their posts are ads.
The report 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.
Last September, the ASA undertook a three-week monitoring exercise to review the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers. Crucially those influencers were selected because they had failed in the past to effectively disclose advertising - and had already been contacted by the ASA because of it.
Those serial offenders no doubt weighed up the consequences of non-compliance and made a commercial decision to flout the ASA's rules.
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 forms of employment, there are good influencers and not-so-good influencers.
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.
2-in-3 Instagram Stories adverts non compliant
Over 24,000 Instagram Stories posts, IGTV and Reels were assessed for compliance rates. Just 35% of advertising content on Stories was found to be clearly labelled and obviously identifiable as such.
2-in-3 Instagram Stories advertisements being non compliant is a damning statistic. Remember, though, the sample pool for analysis was not simply UK-based influencers. "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", according to the report released today.
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.
Key report findings
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.