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