Social Media and Influencers: ASA Surveys Consumer Understanding

Earlier this year, social media stars including Alexa Chung and Millie Mackintosh, provided voluntary undertakings to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The stars committed to make their social media posts more transparent, primarily to disclose their paid-for endorsements. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has now released a new report following its study of consumer understanding of social media ‘influencers’ and the advertising of products. The report found that many social media users struggle to identify whether or not a post or story on Instagram or Facebook, was actually a paid promotion by a brand to an influencer.

The report focuses primarily on how the public perceives the online post, and whether they believe it is an advertisement or not. It highlights that many consumers do not understand the labels that accompany advertisements, and can be misdirected when it comes to promotional codes and indirect language used. The entire study included 1,936 participants.

The main issue the ASA identifies is the consumer’s ability to identify what is an “ad”, or what is an influencer’s regular post. Even when influencers follow the ASA’s guidelines on using ‘#ad’ or ‘#advert’, some consumers could not categorise a post as an advertisement. Similarly, consumers failed to confidently place posts including product shots, brand names, logos, discounts and ‘shop now’ buttons in the category of advertisement. The report concludes that the ASA’s basic requirement of “#ad” should be included in posts as a minimum, with other conditions possibly called for to further the divide between advertisement and actual content.

The ASA is now taking additional steps to ensure consumers are better educated about the advertisements they are viewing. This includes hosting events alongside the CMA for influencers and brands, which will explore the definition of an advertisement and when and how to label a post. The ASA will also be working with advertisement agencies globally to facilitate discussions about social media posts. While this appears positive on its face, it potentially creates worries for influencers (and the brands they work with), who have built their businesses on the art of the subtle advertisement so integral to their industry.

As well as attending the ASA/CMA workshops, brands and advertisers should revisit the published guidelines (CMA Guidelines and ASA Guidelines). It may also be worthwhile keeping up to date with any relevant communications by international advertising regulatory bodies as influencers aim to have a global reach.

Whilst the guidelines are still in their teething phase, perhaps the most effective way to distinguish between when an endorsement is real or fake remains the use of ‘#ad’. The ASA recommends that influencers should clearly use unambiguous hashtags, alongside an overlay that clearly states when a post is an advertisement. The ASA found that hashtags such as ‘#sponsor’ are not sufficient, and even ‘platform labelling’ – where online platforms label sponsored posts as such – are not clear enough for the ASA’s standards.