This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Emily can almost always spot an influencer #ad on Instagram – even when the tell-tale hashtag is buried at the bottom of a lengthy caption. The giveaway, she says, is the tenuous nature of the post. “I usually begin to read a caption and start to feel that it’s very disingenuous or flimsily linked together. That’s when I think, ‘This has got to be an ad,’” says the 25-year-old, whose preferred content creators tend to be lifestyle and interiors influencers like Liv Purvis. “Sure enough, when I scroll down, the post will be hashtagged '#AD'.”
Emily describes a scenario that's likely familiar to those of us who while away our lives looking at pictures of other people's. Since September 2018, whether consciously or not, anyone following UK-based influencers on Instagram may have noticed a rise in the amount of paid marketing – AKA spon(sored) con(tent) – that these professionally Shiny Happy People churn out.
And that's because last autumn UK advertising bodies the ASA – who apply the codes of advertising as written by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) – and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued stricter new guidelines for online influencer marketing. Easy-to-follow language left no room for confusion about what counts as an advert – and no loopholes for influencers to plead ignorance with, if caught flouting the rules. And so they state: any content paid for (whether payment is financial or in goods) by a third party is an ad. If an influencer is promoting their own products – e.g: Zoella hawking her own brand cosmetics – that's an ad. Giveaways? Ads. Freebies? Ads too, unless there’s no affiliate relationship with the brand and it has no editorial control over what influencers post (often this can be something as ‘small’ as just having final approval or the influencer agreeing to post a specified amount of times).
The new guidelines also spell out exactly how such a post should be labelled; either as ‘AD, advert, advertising, advertisement or advertisement feature.’ Influencers who soften the impact of declaring paid content by only tagging their posts as ‘sponsored content’ or ‘sponsorship’ risk falling afoul of the CMA or ASA and having their account features limited by Instagram (ie: ‘shadow banning’). Phrases like ‘in association with’ or ‘thanks to [brand] for making this possible’ are explicitly called out for being too vague. Equally, just @-ing the brand doesn’t cut it. “The main thing to remember,” the guidelines say, “is you need to make it obvious [emphasis their own].”
As someone like Emily knows, this leaves influencers little room to hide. But, for her, that's not a big deal. Research has previously found that sponsored content and non-sponsored content receive equal interaction (measured in the form of likes); instead, the glaring factors that made sponsored content perform poorly was text placed on photos, unnatural product placement and poor photography. Influencers also have long mastered the art of blending ‘genuine’ content with uploads they’re contractually required to make. Yet Emily also admits that knowing content is paid-for doesn’t necessarily make a world of difference to how she engages with it.
“If it's an influencer I follow who I have genuinely seen recommend the thing anyway, or I feel they're authentic enough that I'd truly believe they'd like/use the product then I wouldn't care,” she adds. “[It’s only] if the link between their love for this product and their partnership with the brand feels forced then I'd absolutely pause.” Unsurprisingly, users say their reaction to spon con differs depending on how well they perceive it aligns with the influencer’s brand.
“It depends on the picture whether I engage or read on,” says 28-year-old publishing PA Indre, who cites her favourite influencers as lifestyle and/or empowerment bloggers like Amelia Perrin (full disclosure: Amelia is a friend of the author) and Megan Jayne Crabbe. “If it’s interesting to look at then yes, I’ll engage. If it’s just them holding the product, I’d actually consider unfollowing them straight away – especially if it’s something that looks random or not their typical area.”
Indre has noticed the influx of new #ad tagged posts (which she says puts her off – "I prefer gifted"), but is torn. On the one hand, she says advertising feels ‘normalised’ and she’s happy to plug into it – but only when it appears ‘genuine’, which she admits is somewhat oxymoronic. But recently she’s mass-unfollowed a bunch of influencers because their feeds had become over-saturated with #ad posts and little else.
“I felt like there was no honesty left there, like I was being constantly sold and lied to,” Indre tells me. “Why would I voluntarily follow what’s essentially an ad page? I rarely unfollow influencers just because of the spon con – I unfollowed Louise Pentland when she became a parenting influencer because her content was no longer relevant to me – but if the spon con is for shit that's way out of my budget, or if their posts become mostly spon con, I smash that unfollow button.”
As that research showed, pretty or well-made sponsored posts don't put people off liking or interacting with them. Instagram has quickly turned into a giant shop, warm in your back pocket and ready to be opened at any time. Its shift from strictly image-sharing to a tool for big businesses and influencer marketing was never expressly detailed to Insta users. Rather, the change crept up, from the odd post here and there, to the swipe-up features for business and verified accounts, to the full in-app shopping features used by boutiques and brands. Anyone who opens the app, following people outside of their direct friendship circles for personal reasons, steps into this marketplace automatically. And at times, followers are more than happy to engage on that hyper-consumerist level.
“Sometimes I engage with an ad – I don’t comment but I ‘like’ it without intending to buy if it’s a product that isn’t really for me but seems of good quality and I like the influencer” says Rebecca, a 31-year-old Londoner who works in marketing, making her more conscious of the power her engagement with paid posts carries. She describes her tastes in influencers as ‘feminist,’ citing Florence Given (@florencegiven) as an example. “I’m aware that interaction with a post is something that brands who work with an influencer will consider,” she continues. “So I see a ‘like’ as my way of providing very minimal support for their career.”
Rebecca’s also not too bothered by influencer ads, so long as they’re balanced with alternative content. “I care about being 'sold to' because I see it as a sort of relationship,” she says. “I want to support interesting people who seem authentic and who care about what they put their name to. It feels disrespectful to your audience to try and shill any old crap.”
Rebecca’s stance reflects a sentiment I continue to hear, where following influencers implies an acceptance of a certain level of spon con. It's not seen as 'selling out.' As 21-year-old student Lachlan puts it: “It doesn’t tend to bother me if it’s a subtle post and they’re not bombarding you with ads; gotta get the bread somehow.” Capitalism is so embedded in the fabric of our lives that few of the digital natives I speak to sound particularly thrown by influencers 'just doing their job'.
However, as Lachlan continues, “There is nothing worse than a 'genuine' caption paired with an ad; someone trying desperately to convince you a beautiful river they’re stood over reminds them of a cool beer or something.” That being said, she still feels the constant hum of advertising. "I get targeted ads all the time on social, using my most personal information that they’ve skimmed out of my messages. So I’m not going to get that bothered about someone I like enough to follow on Instagram, earning a bit of cash if they can.” Followers just want to buy into the idea that the ads and persona their chosen influencer has presented to them is ‘genuine’, no matter if deep down, they know it’s not.