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There's been a surge in complaints about Irish 'influencers' plugging products

Three times the amount of complaints have been received so far in 2017 compared to all of last year.

Image: Shutterstock/aodaodaodaod

33 COMPLAINTS HAVE been made to Ireland’s advertising watchdog this year about influencers promoting products online – three times the amount made in 2016.

In total, 11 complaints were made last year.

Orla Twomey, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) told TheJournal.ie this week that a number of the 33 complaints are currently being investigated. The results of the adjudications on these investigations are due out in mid to late August.

“It is likely in this area that we will have more adjudications,” said Twomey, following on from the first adjudication on Snapchat influencer Faces By Grace, in which the ASAI did not uphold or reject a complaint but instead released a statement.

There was a slight increase in complaints after this adjudication was made public.

The ASAI said in January that it had issued new guidelines on the subject, and that it will be keeping an eye on bloggers and online influencers who don’t declare paid-for posts.

Said Twomey of the 33 complaints: “People might complain about material but it ultimately might not be marketing communication, so not all of those would be something we would investigate. It’s a broad mix.

“Some of it is relating to whether or not affiliate links are being disclosed or if the blog itself is a marketing communication, whether that’s being disclosed. Some relate to posts or snaps on Snapchat, or posts on Instagram.”

She said that the complaints are quite widely spread among blogs and social media sites, but in the last month or so there has been slightly more reference to Snapchat or Instagram in the complaints.

In April, the USA’s Federal Trade Commission said that it has sent 90 letters to celebrities and social media stars warning them that they need to indicate when their Instagram posts are sponsored by a brand.

Twomey said that the ASAI’s focus up until now has been to try and raise awareness and share information on this issue.

She explained that though the ‘influencer’ area of marketing communication may be new, the rules governing it are not.

“The important thing to remember is that the code is always required,” said Twomey. “The principle isn’t new so it’s applying it to a new form of communication.” It has been a “learning curve”, she said.

The ASAI does not deal with editorial material, but instead “where there is a commercial relationship between an individual and an advertiser”.

“It is important for the ASAI to ensure we are keeping abreast of developments in marketing and advertising communications,” said Twomey. “Consumers very clearly want to know when they are being advertised to and that the ad is of a high standard.”

She said that there has been a “high degree” of interest among consumers around the issue, and that “they are very savvy about it”.

Twomey said that though there might be issues in this area, she doesn’t think that it’s usually due to people deliberately setting out to be dishonest.

I genuinely believe people don’t set out to deceive or not disclose, but it’s a new area and people are learning and improving practice as they go along. It’s very good to see that there had been such engagement among bloggers and blogging communities in this area.

She added: “As new platforms are developed or adapted there will no doubt be more learning.”

The ASAI has not met individual bloggers yet, but it has talked to the agencies that represent them.

“We are aware that our guidance is discussed among bloggers groups,” said Twomey, adding that the ASAI spoke at two blogger conferences last year on the issue.

When investigating complaints, the ASAI asks for comments from the blogger and company involved,to be delivered within 10 days. Twomey underlined that it’s not the blogger but the advertiser that has primary responsibility in this area.

On the fact that the level of complaints has tripled in just six months, Twomey said that the level of understanding in the area now is “significantly higher” than it was two years ago, but that the ASAI is continuing to reach out and make sure people understand the standards.

“My understanding is there is a huge desire to be compliant and an understanding that it is about brand reputation – it is about the blogger’s own brand reputation, that they don’t damage their own reputation by being seen as not offering full disclosure,” said Twomey.

What’s the guidance for influencers?

Under its guidance note for influencers and bloggers on ‘recognisability of marketing communications’, the ASAI said that its code of standards for advertising and marketing communications applies to all commercial marketing communications, regardless of the medium in which they appear.

It is and has always been an important principle of the ASAI Code that consumers can easily recognise when they are being addressed by a marketing communication so that they can make an informed decision about their engagement with the content. With new advertising techniques, the question is asked: what is a marketing communication and how can it be flagged as such?

The guidance says that a marketing communication “should be designed and presented in such a way that it is clear that it is a marketing communication”.

Advertorials should be clearly identified, and the identify of the advertiser, product or service should be apparent. In relation to social media, the guidance says that “the context of the post or accompanying hashtag may make it clear that it is a marketing communication”.

“However where the context or accompanying # does not make it clear, it is incumbent on the advertiser to ensure that clear guidance is given so that clear ‘flags’ are used, for example #ad.”

For example, Pippa O’Connor uses the hashtag #ad in this Instagram post below:

It adds that generally material created by individuals “is not considered to be marketing communication, even where it is referencing or reviewing advertisers’ products or services”.

Where the reviewer has not been paid or otherwise induced to write a review, then the material is not marketing communication.

However, if an advertiser has paid the reviewer (directly or in kind) and where the advertiser “has significant control over the content of the review”, then it is likely that the material would be considered a marketing communication, says the ASAI’s guidance sheet.

It also says that when a blogger enters into a commercial arrangement with an advertiser to promote the company’s products or services through their blog “then they are effectively acting as a publisher and they have a responsibility to indicate to their readers what material is marketing communications (marcom) material”.

When it comes to free products, if an advertiser offers them to a blogger or influencer with a requirement that a positive review would result, this would be considered to be a marketing communication and should be identified as such.

If it is offered free, but with no expectation of a positive review or a review, then it is not marketing communications for the purpose of the ASAI Code.

Towards the end of 2016, the Irish PR body Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) said it wanted to devise a set of rules to protect consumers from influencers that don’t disclose advertisement payments.

TheJournal.ie reported in 2016 that top social media influencers can earn up to €3,000 for an Instagram post.

The ASAI also offers a copy advice service where bloggers or influencers can confidentially ask for advice on marketing communication or the code. To access that, they can email copyadvice @asai.ie. Two bloggers this year have used this service.

Read: The advertising watchdog has handled its first complaint about a Snapchat influencer>

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