Social media influencers warned they face enforcement action after 'unacceptable' failure to disclose advertising

By Claire Schofield
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 18th March 2021, 9:21 am
Social media influences are being warned they face enforcement action if the fail to disclose ads (Photo: Shutterstock)
Social media influences are being warned they face enforcement action if the fail to disclose ads (Photo: Shutterstock)

Social media influences are being warned they face enforcement action after a monitoring sweep of posts found a widespread failure to disclose advertising.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) checked the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers over a three week period in September last year to assess whether rules requiring users to clearly state which posts are ads were being followed.

Ads not clearly labelled

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    Findings showed that the proportion of influencers sticking to the rules around declaring advertising is “far below” what was expected, the ASA said.

    Almost a quarter of the Stories posted on Instagram were advertising, but only 35 per cent of these were clearly labelled and obviously identifiable as such.

    The watchdog declared this as an “unacceptable” level of non-compliance after years of extensive advice to help influencers and brands understand their responsibilities.

    The rules relating to advertising apply across all platforms and media, but the ASA focused on more than 24,000 Instagram Stories as these tended to attract the most complaints.

    Among the failings were:

    • inconsistent disclosure of ad content across consecutive Stories
    • ads accurately disclosed in a post but not in a corresponding Story
    • ad labels in small font, obscured or in a very similar colour to the background of the Story

    Warning to influencers

    The ASA has said it has contacted all of the influencers, as well as a number of brands, and put them on notice that it will take enforcement action if future spot-checks reveal any problems.

    The watchdog has also warned that influencers should not rely on bios or past posts to make it clear to consumers they are connected to a product, or brand.

    The ASA received a 55 per cent increase in complaints about influencers last year compared to 2019, rising from 1,979 to 3,144, showing that consumers continue to struggle with distinguishing online ads from other content.

    Some 61 per cent of complaints in 2020 were in relation to ad disclosure on Instagram.

    Under the rules, it must be clear to consumers before they read, “like” or otherwise interact with a social media post if it is an ad.

    In most cases, the use of #ad, or a similar indication, is the clearest way of alerting readers.

    The ASA has declined to name any of the influences who it found to be breaking the rules at this stage.

    However, it warned it would consider naming them on a dedicated page on its website and work directly with the platforms and the Competition and Markets Authority on further enforcement action.

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

    “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.”