Labels. I like labels. They’re useful. As you may or may not know, I’m not averse to a spot of clothes shopping and a label on a garment, telling you what size it is and what it costs, is helpful. However, what I’m going to talk about here are the labels used on social media to show that an influencer has been paid to promote a product or a campaign.
Obviously, there are lots of different labels used to disclose on social media and #ad is probably the most common. I think it’s fair to say that most people understand what an ad, advert or advertisement is. However, it seems to me there are still a couple of issues about the use of #ad that need highlighting.
Firstly, this one little hashtag currently covers a wide range of business relationships and creative approaches to promotional marketing, many of which don’t necessarily appear to social media users as traditional ads in the mould of, say, classic TV ads featuring the Dulux dog, the Andrex puppies or Churchill the bulldog. As a result, I wonder whether #ad is actually doing an accurate and effective job?
Secondly, although the ASA would definitely like people to use #ad, and it’s basically the only ASA-approved hashtag, for a promotion to qualify as an ad under the CAP Code there has to be some form of payment plus some form of control by the business over the influencer. If you read the ASA’s rulings on complaints against influencers you can find plenty of examples of what the ASA means by control, and the ASA can advise in individual cases, but do we need a clear, upfront definition of what constitutes control and detailed guidance on how to identify whether it’s present or not?
And then there’s #spon or #sponsored. Rather like #ad, its presence certainly alerts you to the fact that money is likely to have changed hands somewhere along the line, but I’m not sure what it conveys beyond that. I could probably hazard a guess, but I’m not aware of any specific rules for using #spon or agreed definitions about what it means, so I really would be guessing and that isn’t good enough, is it?
I run a prize promotions company, so I’m particularly interested in prize draws and competitions. The hashtags #prizedraw, #competition, #win and #prize all signal that, well, there’s something available to be won, as do #giveaway and variations like #giveawayalert, but when they’re used in isolation they don’t really make any commercial relationship between the influencer the product they’re giving away clear, do they? Perhaps there isn’t one so it doesn’t matter, and you don’t have to disclose if you’re promoting your own products or services, but if there is a business arrangement in place then, as the people being promoted to, isn’t it something we should know about and understand?
When you see the words ‘Paid partnership with…’ at the top of an Instagram post or #paidpartnership in a tweet you get a pretty good idea that what you’re about to see or read isn’t independent or unbiased content. The fact that the influencer has been paid is very clear, which I like. However, #inpartnershipwith or #incollaborationwith aren’t as explicit, and I’m really not sure what #endorsement, #gift or #sample mean or exactly what the financial model is for influencers who use the hashtag #shopthelook or other affinity marketing based arrangements. And don’t get me started on #gifted.
There are undoubtedly an awful lot of hashtags being used out there in social media land – and I’m well aware that the above in no way constitutes a complete catalogue – but are they genuinely helpful? I’d suggest not. Do they really disclose the nature of the influencer/brand relationship and support transparency? Actually, I think they tend to support confusion rather than clarity. Some do make a certain sort sense, but as influencer marketing evolves I wonder if any of them are completely fit for purpose and whether we need a new, universally agreed and actively regulated set of hashtags?
Thankfully the ASA is currently looking into labelling of influencer posts and my best guess is that change is afoot and we will have clear guidance on wording that best reflects the relationship in place.
Earlier this year, Prizeology produced a white paper on influencer marketing, transparency and disclosure which you can download here.
Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist and a National Trading Standards Scams Team Scambassador.