Thought Leadership: The ASA in Relation to Disclosure

Thought Leadership: How can brands and influencers work effectively together in light of recent findings from the ASA in relation to disclosure?

A view from Aaron King, Account Director and Influencer Expert, ITB Worldwide 

The Ever-Evolving Landscape of Disclosure

Over the last few years there has been an immense uptake of influencer marketing. Instagram has proved to be the success story which can be attributed to high audience engagement in comparison to other platforms within the influencer ecosystem, with this comes a complex set of hurdles for marketers to traverse.

As an industry influencer marketing is in its infancy, it’s learning to take its first steps, we’re in the terrible two’s. Traditional media formats have had many years to hash out process and disclosure, in comparison it took TV 13 years to reach 50 million users whereas it took Instagram 9 years to reach 1 billion (Instagram). Interestingly in 2019 US adults will now spend more time on their digital devices than watching TV. Amongst my industry peers I love to joke that “the media landscape has changed” – it’s become almost meme-worthy, it’s caused many traditional advertisers to raise the threat-level to DEFCON-1 with blind-panic in boardrooms, disruptive brands whose very foundation are in social are making huge gains on those trying to make sense of the digital world with an analogue background.

Coming from a PR focused background I would argue that influencer marketing is nothing new – businesses have had PR functions forever who pitch for earned media space, what is new is the platforms upon which we pitch our products to (and where/how), I would argue that influencer marketing is the democratisation of media, for better or for worse. What is new to us is how we police this space and protect consumers given the sheer volume of content that consumers are being exposed to.

State of Play

My professional interest was peaked recently when the ASA overruled a judgement they’d previously made about Influencer Zoë de Pass, causing a lot of conversation across the desks of ITB. Zoë had designed a capsule collection of shoes for footwear brand Air & Grace, there is a clear commercial relationships between the Influencer and the brand that she had talked about and promoted multiple times before. The Influencer took it upon herself to post a piece of organic content (where there was no editorial input from the brand and no payment against this deliverable) with a link to the waiting list for the products that she had collaborated with them on, with the ASA ruling in September 2018 that this is an advert, without using #AD but that there was sufficient signposting so that those viewing the post would understand this. Fast-forward to a year later and the ASA had decided to overrule their own initial ruling, overturning their decision and deciding  that the signposting wasn’t sufficient enough for consumers, that it wasn’t clear within the first few lines of text …. Interestingly, it only took one initial complaint for the ASA to investigate this post.

For brands and agencies this rings alarm bells, how do we police and enforce something & someone that’s outside of our control? We want Influencers to produce organic content for us, it’s our holy-grail, how do we properly instruct influencers to disclose?

ITB’s Approach

When we’re contracting Influencers on behalf of our clients at ITB we have extremely tight disclosure guidelines, this is to protect our clients as best as possible. We have developed language that ensures that there is no room for misinterpretation, requiring Influencers to immediately state the nature of the commercial relationship between brand and Influencer. Alongside our disclosure clause for sponsored content, we specifically dictate that the talent must adhere to , for a set amount of time, the nature of the commercial relationship between the two entities. There has been no clear guidance from the ASA on how this should be signposted other than stating that the nature of the commercial relationship must be immediately identifiable at the outset, the amount of time this should remain the case hasn’t been clearly described. Collectively as an industry we’re told when we’re wrong,  when will we be told what good looks like? Does more time need to spent understanding what consumers do and don’t understand?

There’s definitely an argument that this ruling is heavy-handed, 72% (Influencer Intelligence) of Zoë’s audience are under the age of 35 so it’s fair to say that they’ve grown up with Instagram, surely they can extrapolate from a post that there is a commercial relationship between talent and brand, digital has been part of her audience’s everyday lives for a long time. 75% of Instagram users are 18-24 (Brandwatch via Pew Research Center) so it’s easy to draw conclusions that the majority of the audience on the platform have seen enough advertising from Influencers to enable them to cut through the noise, we’re calling them the truth generation after all. Is this Influencer overkill?

Final Thoughts

Media relies on advertising to keep it afloat, there’s no doubt about this, a glossy magazine relies heavily on its advertising revenue to keep the ship sailing. Opening our favourite magazines will see us touch on many of our favourite brands beautiful campaigns, if we’re more digitally inclined: the digital version, their YouTube channels (Vogue 73 Questions and Go Ask Anna – yesssss) and their Instagram accounts, nowhere do we see clear statements about the previous (or existing) commercial relationships with brands… one could argue that consumers may understand these relationships, I know many PR’s who will argue that they don’t get coverage unless they’re advertisers.

Why aren’t the disclosure rules the same?

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