ASA threatens Instagram influencers over failure to disclose advertising

asa warns influencers over ad disclosure

The UK’s ad industry regulator the Advertising Standards Authority has issued a stark warning to social media influencers on what it called a ‘widespread failure to disclose advertising” in their activities. 

As part of its increased monitoring function, it has published the findings of a proactive monitoring sweep of influencer posts to gauge whether influencers are sticking to the rules, which require that they clearly signpost when their posts are ads.

Influencers targeted by ASA

The ASA report reveals that the proportion of influencers sticking to the rules is far below what was expected.

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The ASA said that in September last year, it undertook a three week monitoring exercise to review the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers to assess whether advertising content was being properly disclosed. 

That exercise involved assessing over 24,000 Instagram stories including posts, IGTV and reels to check compliance rates. 

The advertising rules apply across all platforms and non-broadcast media but this monitoring exercise focused on posts on Instagram because complaints to the ASA about Influencer ad disclosure tend to relate to this particular platform, the standards body said.

Extensive advice, training and easy-to-understand resources have been provided to help the influencer marketing community and brands understand their responsibilities under the ad rules. 

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Despite this, the ASA found that nearly one in four of the stories it assessed was advertising, but only 35% of them were clearly labelled and obviously identifiable as such. 

ASA said “the level of non-compliance is unacceptable”.

ASA findings:

  • Inconsistent disclosure across Stories – when a piece of ad content spans a number of consecutive Stories, unless it’s absolutely clear that this is part of the same posting, each story must be disclosed as an ad
  • Inconsistent disclosure across Stories, IGTV, Reels, posts – ASA noted instances where a post would be accurately disclosed as an ad but a corresponding Story was not
  • Visibility of ad labels – where Stories were labelled as ads, ASA noted labels were sometimes in a small font, obscured by the platform architecture or otherwise difficult to spot; mainly due to being in a very similar colour to the background of the story where it was placed
  • Affiliate content is still an ad – ASA noted the use of #affiliate or #aff with no additional upfront disclosure; those labels are not likely to be enough on their own to disclose to users the advertising nature of the content
  • Own-brand ads – Influencers should not rely on bios or past posts to make it clear to consumers that they are connected to a product

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“No excuse”

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.”

Research shows the difficulty that consumers have in distinguishing certain types of online ads from surrounding content. 

And that, the ASA said, is evidenced by complaints it has received.

Instagram influencers worst offenders

It added that 2020 saw a 55% increase on 2019 in complaints received about influencers from across platforms, from 1,979 to 3,144 individual complaints. 

Moreover, 61% of those complaints in 2020 were about ad disclosure on Instagram.

The ad rules are clear: it must be obvious to consumers before they read, ‘like’ or otherwise interact with a social media post if what they are engaging with is advertising. 

In most cases, the use of #ad (or similar) is the clearest way of communicating the commercial nature of social media content, ASA said. 

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Alternatively, a platform’s own disclosure tools, such as Instagram’s Paid Partnership tool, can also help to distinguish advertising from other content.

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

That might include promoting their non-compliance on a dedicated page on the ASA website, promoting their non-compliance through its own targeted paid search ads and working directly with the platforms and the Competition and Markets Authority on further enforcement action.