The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has warned influencers that it will “take enforcement action” to quash non-compliance after finding widespread breaches of the rules.
A three-week monitoring sweep carried out by the ad watchdog in September found that while nearly one in four stories assessed was advertising, only 35% of ads were clearly labelled and obviously identifiable.
The study reviewed more than 24,000 Instagram Stories and posts across 122 UK-based influencers.
Some of the non-compliant posts contained affiliate links, where creators get a commission if someone goes on to buy something. The ASA said the use of #affiliate or #aff was not enough to make it clear that content was of an advertising nature and recommended all posts include #ad.
The ASA found inconsistencies between what was disclosed on Instagram Stories, IGTV (the standalone platform for longer videos), Reels and posts. There were also discrepancies between what was disclosed on campaigns that ran over multiple Stories or posts.
Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, 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.”
The ASA has previously invested in supporting the influencer marketing industry, including holding an “Influencer Responsibility” event and publishing the “Influencers' guide to making clear that ads are ads” as well as a “cheat sheet” created specifically to help Love Island alum navigate the rules.
However, last year, the ASA received 3,144 complaints about influencers – a 55% increase from 1,979 in 2019 – of which 61% were about ad disclosure on Instagram.
The ASA has contacted all of the influencers involved and warned that it will be forced to act if similar issues are found in future spot checks.
The watchdog’s next moves could include promoting the non-compliance of influencers on the ASA website and through paid search ads, as well as working directly with the digital platforms and the Competition and Markets Authority to force content creators to comply.
Instagram-owner Facebook committed to doing more to prevent hidden advertising from being posted on Instagram in October last year.
Parker said: “We’ve given influencers and brands fair warning. We’re now targeting our follow-up monitoring and preparing for enforcement action.”
Last month, the ASA told influencers and brands not to apply filters to images in paid-for posts if they exaggerate the beauty product's impact.
Commenting on the ASA's announcement, Phil Smith, director-general at ISBA, the British advertising industry group that initially formed the ASA, said: “We have long recognised how important it is for trust and confidence in our industry that brands and influencers make clear when an ad is an ad. The ASA’s disclosure rules are there for all to see - and are mandatory. Non-compliance is clearly unacceptable.
“We are currently working with members on a influencer marketing code of conduct for brands, agencies, and influencers which we intend will raise standards, enable authentic and quality ads, and help deliver the transparency consumers expect and deserve.”