Thursday 18 March 2021 12:01 am

Watchdog slams rule-breaking influencers over ‘unacceptable’ social media ads

The UK advertising watchdog has ramped up the pressure on social media influencers over their continued failure to mark posts as adverts.

Under the current rules online stars are required to clearly state when their posts are sponsored or when a brand has provided them with free products.

But a three-week monitoring exercise carried out last year by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found large numbers of influencers were still failing to follow the rules.

Following a check of more than 24,000 Instagram Stories, the regulator found that almost a quarter were adverts. However, only 35 per cent of these were clearly labelled as such.

The ASA branded the level of non-compliance “unacceptable”, adding that it had provided “extensive advice, training and easy-to-understand resources” to stars and brands to help them understand the rules.

This includes a cheat sheet designed specifically for Love Islanders amid a surge in the number of reality TV stars flogging products through social media.

The watchdog has contacted offending influencers and brands to put them on notice, warning it will take enforcement action if it discovers any future breaches of the rules.

Measures include promoting their non-compliance online and through targeted paid search ads. The ASA is also working with the competition watchdog and social media platforms to explore tougher enforcement action.

“There’s simply no excuse not to make clear to the public when positive messages in posts have been paid-for by a brand,” said ASA chief executive Guy Parker.

“While some influencers have got their houses in order, our monitoring shows how much more there is to do. We’ve given influencers and brands fair warning. We’re now targeting our follow-up monitoring and preparing for enforcement action.”

The spot checks, which targeted repeat offenders, found that influencers were failing to consistently label ads when they ran across multiple Stories or formats, such as IGTV, Reels and posts.

Many stars also hid their ad labels in barely legible fonts, or used hashtags such as #affiliate, which fall foul of the rules on labelling.

The ASA has led a crackdown on influencer marketing amid concerns consumers were being misled about sponsored content.

But influencer marketing expert Scott Guthrie said the report was “less about awareness of the influencer marketing regulations and more about the sharpness of the self-regulator’s teeth in enforcing those rules”.

“Advertisers, influencers and the agents who work on their behalf — the influencer marketing agencies and talent agencies — need to come together to ensure consumers aren’t hoodwinked into thinking advertorial is editorial,” he said.

“This means, adhering to ASA and CMA rules and regulations. It also means forming industry-specific professional bodies and ensuring members abide by codes of conduct.”

Last year the watchdog received almost 3,150 complaints about influencers — an increase of 55 per cent on the previous year. More than 60 per cent of these related to ad disclosures on Instagram.

“Over the past six months and as part of our ongoing efforts in this area, we have made a number of updates to help educate and support people to be transparent about paid content on Instagram,” a spokesperson for the social media platform said.

“This work is ongoing, and we’ll continue to encourage creators and brands to use these tools, as well as work with the ASA and CMA to ensure our efforts remain industry leading.”