The latest CMA guidelines have left a lot of influencers confused and will no doubt end up confusing the consumer even more – my personal belief is that the CMA haven’t got the balance right……YET but they will as agencies and key spokespeople feedback. The rules are getting more stringent and quite rightly so.
Having worked within the marketing industry for years we would have to get all promotions and advertising approved by ASA/CAP. It would have to be submitted, checked and ONLY upon approval would you be able to go ahead. The aim was not to make the life of the agency or brand more difficult (although this is how it felt) but to protect the consumer.
Gaining approval and being checked by an external body ultimately meant that, we the consumers would not be lied to and pushed into buying a product or service that did not stand up to its claims. This is no different for ‘influencers’ across social media.
Social media platforms have become the new advertising, it is a cheap and cost effective way of communicating to 100,000’s of consumers. There are no checks, it’s harder to police and influencers and brands can get away with more.
It is up to celebrities and influencers to be as honest and open as possible so that the consumer is aware of the relationship between the two.
I have a post planned talking about the actual guidelines but in the meantime I bring you an article by Nik Speller all round social media guru and font of all knowledge when it comes to this stuff (previous post can be read here).
The CMA and Social Media Endorsement Disclosure: Where The Heck Do We Stand Now?
For influencers, disclosing advertising on social media has never really been that complicated. The ASA has always said that advertising must be clearly labelled and that full disclosure is necessary where a brand has provided payment (be it in financial terms or a gift) and has a degree of control over the influencer’s content.
Of course, what constitutes the terms ‘clearly labelled’ and what constitutes ‘control’ has always been up for interpretation; but, over time, various rulings by the ASA has made this pretty clear.
That said, this has still left a bit of a mess of ‘paperwork’ for influencers to chew through, before fully understanding what they should and shouldn’t be doing. There’s also the issue of the ‘accidental influencer’; where people find they’ve become influential overnight and didn’t really consider that there were rules to follow.
Neither points are an excuse for not disclosing advertising — particularly as more than enough noise has been made around disclosure in the last year or so — but, these points do go some way to explaining why not everyone has been hot on disclosure, all of the time.
There’s also been (dare I say it) a measure from influencers of ‘so what?’ In a busy life, full of photo shoots, free press trips, endless coffees with endless brands, emails, emails, and more emails, it’s easy to neglect the rules, especially if you haven’t seen any real comeuppance for anyone who regularly flouts them.
But now, after threatening to do so for a while, the Competition and Markets Authority have stepped into the world of influencer marketing and given their views on influencer brand and product endorsements.
The CMA definitely have teeth and the severity of the possible punishments they’ve announced (prison time for not disclosing your ads, anyone?) shows how seriously they’re taking this.
The (latest) new guidelines
This article from the CMA isn’t just a useful resource for influencer; it’s a must-read for anyone operating in this space. Nowhere before have we seen anything that so clearly sets out the expectations for any individual who is promoting products and brands online.
While it’s important to read the entire thing (do I need to say that again? Please please please read it), the key takeouts are as follows:
-> disclosure should be made upfront and shouldn’t require the audience to click on anything: so, as we’ve said before, the disclosure needs to appear at the front of any caption on Instagram and YouTube — and within the title or the image thumbnail of a YouTube video.
-> disclosure has to be made on all content, not just on your profile page: so, there’s no placing ‘I sometimes use affiliate links’ in your bio and hoping that will suffice
-> the language used must be clear and recognisable to your audience: so, you can’t use #spon or ‘in collaboration with’ or anything other than #ad (an alternative thereof)
-> products that have been part of a paid campaign or gifted to you in the past, must be disclosed when they appear in all future content: so, anything and everything that has been sent to you by a brand must be fully disclosed, everywhere it appears
Influencers the saints; other media, the legitimate sinner
From the very second that the CMA published this document, there’s been discussion around many of the finer points and debate on the impact this will have on influencers and their content.
The common issue, that seems to raise its head frequently with regards to disclosure, is whether or not influencers are being held to a higher standard than other forms of media. Magazines and TV don’t have to slap a disclosure on the ads they put out and the gifts their writers and broadcasters may receive and promote, so why should influencers?
It’s very hard to argue that there shouldn’t be uniform standards across different media; but, the CMA (and other bodies) do work on the basis of assumptions about consumer understanding. Most people, they will claim, will recognise a TV ad as being a TV ad; yet influencers aren’t quite established enough for consumers to easily recognise where they are (and aren’t) promoting a product.
Whether that’s right or wrong is up for debate; but, the rules and regulations for other forms of media don’t change those that apply to influencers. If we want to fight for greater uniformity of standards, that’s fine; we have to adhere to the rules that govern our industry first, though.
One area that will definitely raise the most eyebrows is on items that are gifted. The CMA says that these have to be declared, which seems to take things a step further than the ASA ever did — as their criteria for ad required both a gift (or payment) and some form of editorial control. The ASA’s rulings never sat that well with me — brands often gift on the basis of an expectation that the influencer will post about the product in return. While this isn’t direct control, the expectation is a form of control; particularly if the influencer tags the brand and adds a brand-specific hashtag.
The CMA guidelines make this clearer — anything given by a brand has to be declared. They don’t actually say how, though; and this itself throws up an issue. Consumers will definitely be confused if they see #ad on content where the product has merely been gifted. Seeing the ad declaration, I feel, will place in consumers mind the belief that what follows has been dictated (or controlled) by the brand. A gift doesn’t have that strong a level of control and this should be reflected in the declaration. Placing #gifted on a post should go far enough (surely?) to explain to consumers that the product was free, but that the brand hasn’t directly controlled the content.
Influencers as people or entities
Another key issue the CMA guidelines don’t cover is whether the rules apply to individuals only or individuals and entities. If you’re a magazine, posting on social media, do these rules apply to you? Clearly not, if the CMA consider that consumers would understand that — GQ, for instance — will publish adverts and advertorial content across their social channels.
So, what if an influencer elects to become an entity, rather than an individual? Instead of being @JohnSmith, you could @LondonStyleWeekly — same person, same content, same account; but, with the angle that you’re an ‘online magazine’ to help people make style choices, conveniently funded by a fair few brands.
Does this approach circumvent the rules, as a consumer would ‘expect’ a magazine to advertise to them, but an individual not?
It’s something I haven’t seen the CMA cover and I wonder if they’ve considered the neat loopholes they’ve created, by speaking of influencers as individuals.
Disclosing that tattoo for life
Interestingly, the CMA also state that promoted products and brands should be declared in all content in which they feature; even if that content isn’t paid for by the brand. So, that free pair of trainers, posted as an #ad in January, after to be clearly declared as such forevermore (or the rest of the year, as that’s the length of time the CMA have stated the declaration would have to be in place for).
I agree with this, partly. It cuts off a loophole of influencers taking inflated payment, ostensibly for a single post, and then sharing the product/brand a fair few more times without the #ad declaration — making their audience think they have an authentic connection with the item.
Sly, but this industry is full of sly folks.
I also don’t agree with this. The length of time (a year) seems arbitrary. What if the gift is a car? Or a tattoo? You have those ‘items’ for a lot longer; but why does a year become the defining period of authenticity?
My argument would be that prominence should be the key. Those trainers, if featured first and foremost in content should be declared as being gifted in every piece of content. However, if they’re tucked away in the wardrobe during an interiors shot, to declare them just seems a little too much.
And how about a drinks blogger, declaring a shelf full of bottles? This approach becomes almost so convoluted as to be un-adherable, in full, by influencers and unforeseeable by the authorities.
Focusing on prominence would close the loophole of giving a helluva lot of promotion for a single content fee while allowing influencers to live their lives, shoot more content, and not have to worry about keeping the receipts for the products that form the background of their lives.
A good move, but more is needed
Ultimately, these guidelines are a good move for the industry. It shows that we’re being taken seriously, our impact recognised, and it’s a firm kick up the backside for an industry that has really been lacking in professionalism, to date.
But, as with everything in rules, regulations, and the law; this isn’t perfect. It needs work. These rules have to be adapted based on the realities of the industry and the (growing) knowledge of consumers about who influencers are and what they do.
That said, attacking these rules as being blinkered, too harsh, or lacking understanding isn’t the best course of action. As with any new and developing industry, various (and varied) stakeholders need to come together and work out how to balance the needs of consumers, the regulators, the social networks, and influencers.
Thanks my lovelies for reading, would love to hear your thoughts and what you think about all of this.
Love Chet x