'Make it clear ads are ads': ASA releases strict set of guidelines for Instagram influencers

Instagram influencers
Social media influencers will now have to make it very obvious "ads are ads" to avoid complaints. Photo credit: Getty.

The ASA has released a strict set of guidelines it hopes social media influencers will follow when posting advertorial content, to avoid confusion over the authenticity of promotions and reviews. 

The long-awaited document entitled 'Influencers: Making it clear that ads are ads' was issued on Wednesday following a series of complaints about the ambiguity of various Instagram influencer marketing. 

The guidelines dictate for the purposes of applying the ASA codes, the previously vague term of 'influencer' can apply to any person "who has influence over the choice, opinion or behaviour of their followers" - no matter how large or small their following. 

"An influencer is someone who has access to an audience (regardless of size) for their own organic content and ad content they generate income from," the guidelines read. 

"Influencers who develop and/or distribute content about products or services in return for some form of payment are providing a platform for advertising."

The guidelines dictate that products or services being advertised must be clearly labelled as such, even if it's the person's own business being promoted. 

"Consumers should know it is advertising at their first interaction with the ad content. Labels or other means used to identify ad content must be obvious, clear, prominent and upfront and they must be separate from other disclosures, hashtags or links," the guidelines read. 

'Make it clear ads are ads': ASA releases strict set of guidelines for Instagram influencers
Photo credit: ASA Influencer guidelines.

"Every post that includes ad content and each segment of a story that includes ad content needs to be identified as advertising." 

Previous popular hashtags to show advertising, including #sp (sponsored) or #collab (collaboration) are no longer passable, as the meaning isn't obvious to the common consumer. 

In what will be a controversial call for many influencers, the guidelines also state the 'gifting' of a free product or service also constitutes as advertising. 

"'Payment' can be any benefit the influencer may receive in exchange for the content they distribute including but not limited to: money, free product or service, credit, event tickets, travel, product loans," the document states. 

"The ASA's definition of advertising is much broader than what many think of as an ad."

The ASA says this is down to the "intent" of the distributor. 

"If an advertiser is using an influencer to promote its products, services or brand, it is ad content.

"A free product or service constitutes an exchange of value between advertiser and influencer and has been given to the influencer for a reason. That is, to obtain a review that is shared with the influencer's followers." 

This means that common hashtags often used - including #gift, #gifted, #PRSample, or #ambassador - all must follow a clear statement that the product is an ad, so for example, the #ad hashtag. 

The document also offers some guidelines around the labelling identifying ad content, including making sure it's prominently displayed, easy to understand, and appropriate for the channel used - meaning simply stating it in your Instagram story is no longer enough. 

"Blanket disclosures in influencer profile information are not sufficient to notify consumers about ad content in individual posts or stories." 

ASA influencer guidleines
Common mistakes often made by influencers when identifying advertorial content were also revealed. Photo credit: ASA Influencer guidelines.

Examples of "common mistakes" made by influencers include having the 'ad' label as one of many hashtags or labels, or not writing it in an obvious and easily recognisable colour or size. 

These label requirements will apply to all ad content posted from September 14 2020.