Social Influencers and Ethics

Caitlin Genoe - 19/08/2016 - 6 mins read - Social Advertising

Adverts... They’re part of our daily lives and sometimes it feels like they are just about everywhere, especially online. But what if you didn’t realise you were being sold a product? Welcome to the era of subtle social influencer advertising!

Brands are finding new ways of advertising via influencers so that their products or services are discussed in a context that is considered fun, entertaining and ultimately has a chance to sway opinion. Online personalities can have a big influence over their audience and their buying habits. The fans are pretty savvy, but nonetheless it’s believed that they often put their trust in influencers and the opinions they have about products. This is where the ethical dilemmas begin.

Having an influencer use and review products in a blog post, video or image can be a great way to advertise and reach an intended audience through subtle promotion. However, the audience need to be aware that this content is either sponsored by a brand or is an advertisement. This is worrying, with as many as 6 in 10 industry professionals admitting to “flouting” the UK’s code. Some brands have found themselves in hot water with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK and the Federal Trade Commission (FTA) in the USA. These organisations are cracking down on deceptive advertising.

The Effect of Influencers

Social influencers usually have a massive following of loyal fans across multiple social media sites and apps. Having influencers promote a product allows for positive ratings, great exposure and typically a fun and engaging ad. Traditional advertising can be off-putting and can come across as invasive or irrelevant.

Influencers build up relationships with their fans and naturally a level of trust is built between an online personality and their followers. A joint study held by Twitter and Annalect found that 40% of participants have bought a product after seeing it being used by an influencer. While more than half of those surveyed trust their friends for recommendations, 49% mostly rely on influencers for this. After all, they are called “influencers” for a reason.

While it’s often alluded to, we don’t really know for sure if influencers only work with brands or promote products that they genuinely like and believe in. They might not openly state that they have been sent a product to promote, even if it was for free.  Despite stating this in a bio or elsewhere, it might not be mentioned within the content itself. Some fans can be very trusting of the influencer’s opinion and this relationship shouldn’t be abused.

Discussing Disclosure

Influencers should be disclosing the nature of their content for ethical reasons. Fans need to be aware that if the influencer was paid, the brand may have had an unknown amount of control. Many influencers use hashtags to do this. These include #paid, #ad, #sponsored or #spon and #sp for short. However, the FTA doesn’t believe this is enough to properly disclose the purpose of content. They have been cracking down on brands who don’t openly state this.

Could such frank disclosure affect the subtle charm of this type of product promotion? A study suggests that with written content, 54% of readers don’t trust it when it’s sponsored. Therefore, could this be off putting for both influencers and their audience.

Another issue with disclosure depends on which platform the content is on. For instance, on YouTube it’s easy to put “ad” in both the video title and a quick disclosure in the description, along with mentioning it in the video if you wish. A good example is Louise Pentland, also known online as “Sprinkle of Glitter”.

Giving full disclosure is tricky if you have a character limit, such as on Twitter, or if the content only lasts a few seconds, like on Snapchat. The audience could miss out on seeing the hashtag on a snap or it could become lost among other hashtags on Instagram. Influencers might be reluctant to make this obvious in case they are labelled as a ‘sell out’ or if it compromises their content.

Sponsored Content v Adverts

The ASA believes the difference between content being sponsored and being an advert lies in an exchange of money.

“If a brand sends and influencer items for free without any control of the content, the post does not need to be labelled an advert/advertorial”.

Sponsored content where the products discussed are a free gift and influencers have a lot of control over the review or promotion does not have to be labelled as an advert. That being said, influencers should probably still explain the relationship with the brand. If the influencer was paid to promote a product, and the brand had a lot of creative control, then this must be labelled accordingly.

Examples of Influencer Advertising Gone Wrong

UK YouTubers ‘Amazing Phil’ and ‘Dan is not on Fire’ teamed up with Mondelez to promote Oreo cookies through one of their videos. Unfortunately the video ended up being banned, despite the video clearly stating that they were contacted by Mondelez and that the video was made in association with them. However, what they didn’t mention was that they were paid to do this, or that the purpose was therefore to advertise Oreo products. From a social point of view, it was a great piece of content as the influencers fit in with the brand well and it didn’t seem unordinary among their other videos. Sadly, they failed to be truly transparent.

In the USA, YouTuber PewDiePie and others were paid by Warner Brothers to give positive reviews for a game. It’s believed the influencers were told how many pieces of content to create and that it should not contain any negative feedback. Warner Bros wanted their influencers to give a biased review of their product, but failed to let the audience be aware of this. PewDiePie denies any wrongdoing since he included a disclaimer in the YouTube video description, which is the right thing to do. However, the FTA pointed out how this wouldn’t be seen when reposted or shared on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

So there we have it. Both influencers and brands are feeling the pressure to fully disclose their relationships when it comes to both sponsored and paid advertorial content. Ethically, this is very important for the audience to be aware of this. Perhaps the use of “#ad” or “sp” isn’t quite enough to make sure people are fully aware of the truth. However, in some ways influencers and brands are right to be wary of this, as it could affect their content and how it is received by the fans. While this disclosure needs to be given, being aware of brand and influencer compatibility and being savvy about the content itself will go a long way.

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