The #AD, #Gifted & Transparency in 2019 panel took place on Friday at Summer in the City 2019, on the Gaming Stage. It was chaired by James Erskine, managing director of The Big Shot.
The panel featured YouTubers Luke Cutforth and Lucy Moon, alongside Si Barbour-Brown (director of The Sharper Group) and Jennifer Quigley-Jones (managing director of Digital Voices).
It opened with James asking the panellists to share their understanding of what transparency means in the creative industry in 2019. Jennifer began by saying that she believes transparency is trying to maintain trust with an audience. Si agreed with Jennifer, and added that it’s just a case of being genuine because viewers know there will be ads and gifted items. He furthered his point by saying that it’s all about respect, both between the creator and the viewer, and between the brands and the creator. Luke said that transparency to him is about having respect with his audience, and not tricking them into being advertised to. He continued by saying that, through being transparent and honest with his audience, he is able to “generate this really nice reciprocal relationship with a group of people who just want the best for you”. Lucy concluded that her view of transparency is offering clarity on what is going on in her content on any level.
James then started a quiz with the panellists, in which he suggested different scenarios for social media posts, and the panellists had to say whether they would have to declare #AD or #Gifted alongside it. The point of this game was to highlight the grey areas where the rules on advertising get “a bit ridiculous”. From this, we learned that when a creator is posting about their own merchandise, they are still meant to declare it with #AD, even though it is implicit that they are earning money from their merchandise. We also learned that if someone is gifted a dress from a company, and they post about it with #Gifted once, if they continue to wear that dress in their content they are meant to declare that it was gifted every single time it is featured for 12 months afterwards. Also, if a creator were to be gifted something like mascara which runs out after use, and then they buy another one because they liked the product, they are still technically meant to declare their relationship with the brand for up to 12 months. Finally, we learned that if a brand is working with a creator on a long-term ambassadorial partnership, and within that partnership the brand sends the creator a birthday cake, even if it is not part of the agreed campaign and there is no requirement to post, the creator should declare the cake as #Gifted.
James brought up the regulatory bodies the ASA and the CMA, asking Jennifer about the differences between them and what powers they have. Jennifer started by saying that the ASA is the Advertising Standards Authority, and while it is not a government body, “it is seen as the authority on making sure that everyone knows when they’re being advertised to”. Jennifer said that every week the ASA puts up a post on its website about people who have not declared advertising correctly, because they know that when it’s an influencer the press will pick it up. She explained that the ASA can refer breaches to the Committee of Advertising Practices, which can run articles about brands that haven’t complied with regulations, and they can pay for advertisements on Google so that when users search for that brand, the CAP article is the first thing that comes up. The third level of sanction, she continued, is referral to Trading Standards. Jennifer then moved on to the CMA – the Competition and Markets Authority, which is part of the UK government. The CMA has power over all editorial content, and is the enforcer of the consumer protection law. James added that both the ASA and CMA are able to give out fines based on advertising contracts that are misleading.
James then turned to Si to ask him whose responsibility it is to know all of these advertising rules. Si said he believes it’s everyone’s responsibility to know these rules, and that there needs to be more respect between creators, brands, and agencies in educating each other on them. He said there are micro-influencers that don’t even know the ASA and CMA exist, let alone what to do in terms of their policy. Si said he tries to make sure that the people under his agency are aware of any changes to ASA guidelines, and he has given them a “pretty black-and-white directive” on guidelines. He said he feels it is his responsibility to make sure that his clients are okay, and that they do everything they possibly can to stay within the guidelines. He finished by saying that it would be nice for brands and agencies to be far more savvy about it as well.
Luke was then asked by James whether, as a creator, he is aware of different regulations and regulatory bodies, or whether it is just a matter of knowing what to do and going with what feels right. Luke said that he is aware of the regulations and regulatory bodies, noting that because started on YouTube so early, it is still strange to him that it has become an industry, because when he started the idea of it becoming his career never crossed his mind. However, he said that because it is now his job, he does have to learn. He said that his awareness is not perfect and that he could learn more, but that he does have management, and he doesn’t post anything before he knows it is okay. Luke said that his good intentions, along with his layers of management, have not led him far wrong before, and that the only time he had been caught up in something bad is when he was featured in someone else’s brand deal, where they did not declare it correctly.
The regulations apply to all brand deals, not just those involving online video creators, and so James brought up the other kinds of public figures who are affected, such as footballers. Lucy mentioned Maya Jama as someone who epitomises the crossover between an influencer and a traditional celebrity. She also suggested that “influencers” are held to a different standard than others, and that it would be different if they were labelled as content creators instead, because the “influencer” label implies that the creator’s purpose is to sell products. Si said he finds that there are a lot of smaller creators that are not using #AD because they are not aware, while on the other end of the scale there are reality TV stars who are not declaring their #ADs, and that the the full-time creators that fall in the middle of the spectrum are the ones that get a lot of the backlash if they make a mistake, when really everyone is just trying to figure it out.
Jennifer said she gets annoyed that these regulations were written in a time when influencers didn’t exist. She said that when she watches Love Island, and sees the “P” symbol onscreen indicating product placement, she doesn’t understand which part is paid for as the specific brand partnerships are not signposted. (Luke then revealed he had messaged Amy from Love Island on Instagram to say that she was doing her #AD declaration wrong, and she changed how she was doing it!)
James then opened up the panel to the audience for questions.
One audience member observed that, in their opinion, what mades an #AD an #AD is not necessarily just that the creator is receiving benefit from it, but also that the message they have to put across is controlled. Si agreed, and said that if one of his clients is paid to advertise a product or told what to say about a product, he would always tell them to declare it as an #AD.
The next audience member asked whether the panel thought there were parties actively striving not to declare any #ADs or #Gifted items. Jennifer agreed, saying she thought that it is particularly common when it is less of a traditional sale, and that apparently only about 11% of influencers declare #ADs correctly. Luke said that he doesn’t think people are deliberately trying to mislead their audiences, but are just trying to make as much money as they can without acting like a sell-out. He said that finding the balance between content and brand content is key. Lucy suggested that the creators who don’t tend to declare #ADs are often on the outlines of the industry, and that creators who have mainly US audiences, for example, tend to prioritise #AD declarations less, thinking themselves less likely to be pulled up on it because of where their audience is located. James then highlighted a common misconception: the rules are actually stricter in the US, but more people ignore them. Finally, Jennifer added that transparency in the industry helps, as viewers are finally understanding that creators cannot survive on ad revenue alone.
To wrap up the panel, James asked the panellists to either give an indication that influencer marketing is regulated more tightly than other parts of media marketing, or to give some practical advice for the audience to take away to make sure they are remaining compliant. Lucy said that she thinks that the world of influencing is like the Wild West still, and that they have a long way to go but are on the right track, while Jennifer said that she loves working with people who are really transparent, and she believes that film and TV should be raised to match to this industry’s standards of advertising regulation.
Photos by Emma Pamplin.
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