With great power comes great responsibility – the importance of transparency in social media influencer marketing

12 February 2019

Model Alexa Chung, singers Ellie Goulding and Rita Ora and actor Michelle Keegan are never far from the limelight – but they have been hitting the headlines recently for reasons you might not expect.

They have joined 12 other famous faces who have made a formal commitment to change the way they label social media posts, after responding to an investigation launched by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) last August into concerns that social media stars were not properly declaring when they had been paid or rewarded for endorsements.

The pledges came as the CMA published a quick guide for social media influencers, marketing companies, agents and brands. This is in addition to The Influencer’s Guide it brought out in collaboration with the Advertising Standards Authority last September last year. It also plans to investigate the roles and responsibilities of social media platforms.

Influencer marketing is not new. Countless models and movie, sport and TV stars have been using their status to endorse products from clothes to fizzy drinks, and everything in between, for decades. But while the phenomenon isn’t new, the growth in social media platforms and their use means that influencer marketing has become big business, enabling brands to align themselves with key individuals, accessing their, often vast, online audience.

And it’s extremely powerful. As the influencer is someone who is liked and trusted, often with a deep connection with their followers, their endorsement carries huge weight, allowing brands to grab attention and achieve that much coveted cut-through. Some celebrities are paid thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, for just one post – nice work if you can get it.

It’s understandable why brands feel influencers are worth that level of investment. While measuring return-on-investment is still a challenge facing the industry, we know celebrities can boost brand profiles, sell products, create a buzz around an event and, importantly, raise public awareness of worthy causes.

Take popular parent blogger Anna Whitehouse, aka ‘Mother Pukka’, who has leveraged the power of her 191,000 Instagram followers to promote flexible working for parents in the UK – including giving evidence to the Welsh Assembly on maternity discrimination and the pivotal role of flexible working in closing the Gender Pay Gap.

Unfortunately, though, not all influencer activity has such a positive aim. And as this new wave of influencer marketing grows, so too do concerns about the lack of transparency with which some of its stars are operating.

In September 2017, the ASA upheld a complaint against Sophie Kasaei, of Geordie Shore fame, after she posted a picture of Flat Tummy Tea on Instagram, alongside claims that the drink would help weight loss. It told Flat Tummy Tea “not to make references to health-related well-being in brand names unless those claims were accompanied by a permitted health or nutrition claim”.

And Kasaei is not the only celebrity to have faced criticism for promoting diet products they claim have resulted in dramatic weight loss – with many people voicing concerns about the impact posts by celebrities about so-called slimming teas, coffees, shakes and even diet lollipops could have on young impressionable followers.

One of the latest examples of where influencer marketing has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons is Fyre Festival. Currently the subject of not one, but two documentaries commissioned by Netflix and Hulu, it was billed as the party of a decade on a deserted island.

Promoted by famous faces including Kendall Jenner, who was reportedly paid $250,000 (£193,000) for one single Instagram post, guests were promised “the best in food, art, music and adventure” in the Bahamas. Instead, they found rain-drenched disaster-relief tents, limp cheese sandwiches served in polystyrene trays – and no sign of the promised music acts. The festival never took place and its organiser, Billy McFarland, is now in prison for fraud.

In light of the financial loss of those who bought tickets, the Bahamians, whose labour was unpaid, and the six-year prison sentence for its creator, the CMA’s proactive approach has never been more timely. The new guidance to ensure that influencers are aware of the impact their posts have is long overdue and the demands for transparency from those with a platform is much-needed. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

This article was written by our Group Managing Director, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 11 February 2019.