We all know that brand placement is common and extensive across many of our favourite channels, through film, TV and social media.
The Kardashian clan seem to cash in endlessly on promotional opportunities on TV, actively blurring out brands that don’t pay for promotions. James Bond has been drinking Heineken, wearing Omega watches and driving Aston Martins for years, and you see product placement throughout each episode of Corrie whenever that pervasive "P" appears in the opening credits.
In these formats native advertising is largely accepted for what is it – marketing messages woven naturally into the content.
Yet in the comparatively new waters of influencer marketing the lines between genuine endorsement and paid-for advertising seem to blur, resulting in regular criticism of influencers for not making their commercial work clear enough, and of brands for covertly advertising products online.
Failing to label something as advertising erodes consumer trust, undermines the advertising industry’s efforts to make campaigns more transparent, and has led to more recent crackdowns from the Advertising Standards Authority and Federal Trade Commission on influencer marketing campaigns.
Mediakix recently analysed the 50 most-followed celebrities in May and found that in the US, 93% of posts promoting a brand were not compliant with the FTC guidelines.
Should #spon pop up when Bond drinks his Heineken? Why doesn’t Kim K have a flashing #ad sign round her neck at all times on her TV show?
London influencer Sheikhbeauty, meanwhile, recently saw a post banned for failing to label a pic alongside a flat-tummy tea brand as advertising. Without the requisite #ad or #spon it was decided that it was not obviously identifiable as marketing and/or advertising.
Navigating the often-muddy waters of influencer marketing can be difficult and, with heavy fines and reputations at stake, mistakes can be costly.
But currently the industry is moving so fast that rules seem to be applied as a reaction rather than being fully considered. Different rules are applied to social creators to those used in the rest of the industry due to a lack of understanding and, to be blunt, a knee-jerk reaction to media coverage.
We need consistency, clarity and parity with more mature forms of product placement and advertising, in order to level the playing field so brands can make the most of a very effective channel.
It’s vital we reach consensus over the most effective way to communicate a commercial partnership to the consumer via social posts, but we also must ensure we don’t undermine the practice and hold it to higher standards than elsewhere.
In films and TV, why does #ad not appear as soon as a sponsored product is included on screen? Should #spon pop up when Bond drinks his Heineken? Why doesn’t Kim K have a flashing #ad sign round her neck at all times on her TV show?
The audience at an event Dodie performed at actually chanted '#ad' when she thanked Chupa Chups for their ongoing support.
In a video on social, if a paying brand is featured or mentioned only once, is it right that the whole video be labelled #ad?
And consider a non-paid mention of a previously paid for brand. Suppose an influencer strikes a deal with a brand for a set number of posts, but a few months later includes that brand in a personal "roundup" post. Should that then be labelled #ad?
The same rules should apply across all formats, whether TV, film or social media. We need clarity and consistency in the way labelling is defined and reviewed on social media, and it should be on a level with other media channels to avoid confusion for brands, marketers and influencers.
Rules shouldn’t be reactive. Most committed influencers are making clear when they are advertising with correct labelling of #ad, but in many cases, reality TV stars are continuing with bad practices that are damaging other rule-abiding campaigns.
This is in part down to bad practice from agents who misadvise talent with regard to the regulations. The professionals do declare when they are advertising. Instagram’s new "paid partnership with" tag will help address this somewhat.
It’s also important to remember that people don’t necessarily mind brand advertising on social media – and can sometimes outright enjoy it.
A campaign we ran with Chupa Chups and influencer Dodie (clearly labelled as an ad) got over 1.2 million views and drove incredible engagement for the brand. The ad content was so strong that it created viral appeal that rivalled her non-ad content.
The audience at an event she performed at even chanted "#ad" at her when she thanked Chupa Chups for their ongoing support.
That is what I call transparent and honest. As long as the content is still entertaining and engaging for that specific influencer’s audience, it will be a success for advertisers investing in it.
If the ASA and FTC are going to effectively create transparency in the influencer marketing industry, they need to start with parity with other forms of brand endorsement in popular culture.
Matt Donegan is managing director at Social Circle