As you’re scrolling through your Instagram or Twitter feed, skimming the new images, videos, or posts by the people you follow, you pause at one. Is this new content? Is this a recommendation from a trusted source? Or is this simply an ad?

These days, it’s hard to tell the difference. Brands are integrating their marketing communications so seamlessly on social media that consumers can’t even tell if they’re being sold something. Often these communications come in the form of posts by “influencers” who review and recommend the product to their followers, or create content around the product. However, they usually don’t preface these posts as ads or #sponsoredpost, leading to the blurred line between content and advertising. These so-called “influencers” on these platforms have landed in hot water recently with the Federal Trade Commission (O’Brien, 2017). The FTC recently sent letters to “influencers and marketers” detailing that they need to be upfront when they are being paid to endorse products (O’Brien, 2017).

It’s an interesting conundrum in today’s world, where brands try to leverage the power of social media to make an impact on their brand. Word of mouth trust has now extended to trusting those you follow on social media sites. Brands are of course highly interested in getting their products into the hands of those coveted influencers who can motivate their followers to buy. But is it ethical for brands and companies to take advantage of this relationship? When consumers don’t know they are being sold something or that their trusted poster is actually being paid to write about a product, how can they make a decision about the content? Does their trust in someone they follow decrease if they know they are being paid? If the consumer does not see an influencer as authentic, genuine, or truthful anymore, does that reduce the power of sponsored posts that are clearly labeled as such?

In response to the FTC cracking down on murky endorsement relationships, Instagram has created a new feature that will help users clearly label their posts as paid endorsements (O’Brien, 2017). It will be interesting to see if other sites follow suit. Of course, enforcing the FTC rules and labeling is another issue when the social media landscape is ever-changing. New platforms and new updates to existing platforms create a nebulous situation where marketers are keen to capitalize on the popularity of a social media site but consumers can be left in the dark.


O’Brien, S.A. (2017). Instagram wants influencers to label sponsored posts. CNNtech. Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2017/06/14/technology/business/instagram-celebrity-ads-label/index.html

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3 Responses to #SponsoredPost

  1. Raymond says:

    Hi Arshi,
    I personally don’t see anything unethical with the practice of having people promote through social media. Sure, they should be a little clearer with articulating that their post is an ad but this practice seems to be the evolution of spokesperson advertising that probably reaches more people in target audiences than radio or television. I think it is useful for organizations in that it allows them to further focus their marketing strategy and filter out people that are not in their target audience. I have noticed that on Twitter and Instagram some of the people I follow will use the hashtag #ad to distinguish between a personal post or advertisement; maybe this will become the norm to bring a little more clarity to the practice. Interesting read, I enjoyed it!


  2. Brett Bezad says:

    Hi Arshi,

    You bring up a great point! While it is certainly disappointing, I do question if it is unethical. I say this because I was wonder if it is more about human nature and less about Instagram itself. Its like going a date but soon discovering that the person wants to sell you something, or is there to simply “network.” It is a bummer, but I wonder if these situations are natural outside of Instagram. Additionally, even if Instagram distinguishes ads from non-ads, someone in your feed is already advertising in a way you may not take notice. That friend taking sharing pictures of fancy resorts, favorite drinks, a new car, or the latest outfit is already advertising, or promoting a brand, whether it is recognized or not. Therefore, is Instagram simply a photo-sharing app? Or an advertising tool in general? I think you are onto something very interesting since the line between private citizen and corporation are often blurred on Instagram and other social media tools. However, is it right for Instagram to limit advertisers, when Instagram is arguably an advertiser itself?

    Thanks for posting!


  3. Violet Ward says:

    I think that enforcing that both marketers and bloggers disclose their sponsorship/ compensation in a product is a great idea. A consumer who follows a blogger and makes purchases based on the blogger’s recommendation should be aware of the motivation behind the recommendations. Without disclosing the sponsorship status, the blogger’s recommendations may be perceived as false advertising that is bias and not genuine.