Advertising Standards Authority releases formal guidelines for Instagram influencers

Yesterday, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) issued a set of guidelines for social media influencers to follow when posting advertorial content.

The document, titled ‘Influencers: Making it clear that ads are ads', has been developed to support the identification of influencer advertising content and highlight the collective responsibilities of influencers, agents, and advertisers in ensuring ad content is labelled for consumers.

What you need to know

The guidelines clarify that the term “influencer”, for the purposes of applying the ASA Codes, is a broad term used to describe people who have influence over the choice, opinion or behaviour of their followers. An influencer is someone who has access to an audience (regardless of size) for their own organic content and ad content they generate income from. Influencers who develop and/or distribute content about products or services in return for some form of payment are providing a platform for advertising.

The ASA’s definition of “advertising” is broad and includes any influencer content that is controlled directly or indirectly by an advertiser for payment. “Payment” can be any benefit the influencer may receive in exchange for the content they distribute, including a free product or service received from an advertiser.

Identifying “advertising content”

The guidelines require that all advertising content published by influencers must comply with the Advertising Standards Code Rule 2(a): Advertisements must be identified as such. This requirement will apply to all influencer ad content posted from 14 September 2020.

The guidelines state it must be obvious to consumers whether the content is an ad at their first interaction with it. This means the consumer shouldn’t have to click or otherwise interact with the post in order to determine whether it’s an ad or not. In some cases, such as when it is obvious to, and well understood by consumers that they are engaging with advertising by brands, additional identification of ad content may not be required. For example, when a consumer is engaging with the Instagram account of a large retailer.

In all other cases however, content needs to be clearly identified as ad content. The guidelines recommend influencers can either:

  • clearly explain in the first interaction consumers have with the content that it is advertising;
  • use the Branded Content or Paid Partnership tools available on some platforms; or
  • if in doubt as to whether one of the above options alone clearly identifies the ad content, or if an influencer does not use any of the above options, the content must be labelled so that it's obvious to consumers they’re engaging with ad content.

The ASA recommends using the labels “Ad”, “Advert” or “Advertisement” (with or without hashtags) to identify ad content. The label must appear at the first interaction consumers have with the content. Influencers may choose to use other labels such as “Gifted”, “FreeSample”, “Ambassador” or “WorkingWith[advertiser name], to provide their followers with a greater understanding of the nature of the relationship between the influencer and advertiser, but these need to be used in addition to, not instead of, the recommended “Ad” labels.

Importantly, the guidelines clarify that blanket disclosures in influencer profile information will not be enough to notify consumers about ad content in individual posts or stories. Influencers need to label each separate post and each segment of a story that contains ad content.

Our view

The guidelines are a welcomed response to the need for stronger guidance in this rapidly evolving space and provide much needed clarity for all parties involved in influencer advertising.

It’s clear from the guidelines that the buck doesn’t stop with influencers.  All parties involved in an ad, i.e. the influencer, the advertiser and agencies, are responsible for making it clear the content is advertising.

Businesses and brands need to take control of any advertising or promotional narrative (whether on social media or other platforms) from the outset.

When using paid-for social influencers, or where goods and services are gifted in exchange for influence advertising the best way for businesses to manage risks are to:

  • Implement robust agreements between your business and your influencers that require them to clearly disclose a connection between your business and the influencer.
  • Ensure that your agreements require influencers to label their posts with “#Ad” or “#Advert” or “Advertisement” upfront (before consumers click or engage); in a prominent place; that is appropriate for the channel; and suitable for all devices.
  • Train and Monitor influencers. Implement a compliance program for influencers to follow, that teaches them what disclosures need to be made and when.  Enforce the compliance program. Monitor the posts of the social influencers that your business engages with.

It is important to remember that clearly identifying ad content is just one of the responsibilities influencers and other parties to an ad have to ensure responsible advertising. Businesses and influencers still need to comply with the requirements of the Fair Trading Act 1986 and the Advertising Standards Code when posting advertorial content online and through social media platforms.

What’s next?

Businesses, agencies, and influencers should familiarise themselves with the new guidelines. More information about identifying ad content is available in the ASA’s Guidance Note on the Identification of Advertisements.

If you have any questions or want to understand more about influencer advertising and how the above issues are relevant for your business, please contact one of our experts.

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