The issue of influencers behaving unethically is rarely out of the news and calls are growing for united action. Celebrities including Katie Price (pictured above), DJ Melissa Reeves and Lauren Goodger, were reprimanded for irresponsibly marketing a weight-loss product in October.
The ASA ruled the Instagram posts, for BoomBod, flouted guidelines by promoting a dieting product in an irresponsible manner; making health claims that were not authorised by the EU Register; and touting a rate of weight loss that is prohibited. The ASA called on the influencers and brand to remove the offending posts, but the influencers had failed to do so days after the ruling was issued.
PRWeek found that Price and Reeves were also promoting another contentious product, Skinny Coffee. In May, Price said on Instagram that Skinny Coffee helped her lose three pounds in five days. She also said it "is great for weight loss, boosting energy levels, and reducing bloating".
This may sound familiar to Panorama viewers. In February the BBC TV programme investigated irresponsible influencer marketing and found a similar product, Skinny Coffee Club, being heavily promoted to young people.
"Irresponsible influencer marketing is a big problem with well-documented consequences," warns Dan French, co-founder and global senior vice-president of Clifford French, a sports and entertainment comms agency that manages influencer work.
French points to a study by The Royal Society for Public Health, which revealed that Instagram is the worst app for users' mental health and has been linked to eating disorders and body-image issues.
Influencing the gullible
"Too many brands and influencers are capitalising on young and vulnerable consumers with… fast-fix diet solutions and cosmetic surgery adverts," he says. "Influencers are not being [taken] to task when it comes to promoting these products."
French cites irresponsible brands and influencers who "simply don’t care about what they post and are capitalising on their influence to drive commercial gain".
Karmarama social and influencer lead Katie Hunter said the challenge with influencer marketing is that it’s still relatively new as a marketing tactic and processes are still being put in place.
"There is a risk of things falling through the cracks or lacking consultancy (many creators are still independent of agents or management and it’s a big world to navigate) and this definitely needs to be monitored closely," she said.
A recent study by influencer-marketing platform Takumi backs up these concerns. It found that 62 per cent of UK influencers report having been pressured by brands to contravene ASA guidelines at least once, and that 67 per cent of UK consumers will unfollow influencers if they find out they have incorrectly labelled paid posts.
French has noted a trend of more reality TV stars promoting diet products and cosmetic surgery as opposed to more established influencers who build genuine audiences for specialist subjects like food, travel and sport.
In 2018, the ASA received 352 complaints about influencers. In 2019, this has more than tripled to above 1,300.
"Generally these are about lack of disclosure or where complainants believe the posts are otherwise irresponsible," says an ASA spokesperson.
These are the posts social-media users feel compelled to report, but it is not difficult to find further examples.
Policing illicit influencing
Steps are being taken to improve detection, however. The ASA is exploring the use of data-driven monitoring to proactively identify where problem ads appear.
Once the ASA receives a complaint it investigates before taking action. As it is not a mandatory body, it can ask only for the removal of posts that have breached the guidelines. In the case of non-compliance, it can refer the matter to Trading Standards, which could lead to fines and even imprisonment, although this is very rare.
Critics warn that tougher regulations and penalties may be required to clean up dodgy influencer practices.
"If the national bodies and regulators want to drive real change, they need to implement severe punishments to make influencers think again. The only way to do this is to hit them in their pockets," French argues.
Takumi chief executive Adam Williams warns that the stakes could not be higher.
"If brands and marketers don't [take] responsibility for upholding guidelines through thorough briefing, monitoring and… education, they will not see the benefits of influencer marketing as the industry matures," he says.