The ASA recently published an article that was written in response to an increase in queries from bloggers and brands that required guidance. The outcome was clear: the UK advertising code states that ads must be 'obviously identifiable marketing communications' and we must make every concerted effort to ensure they're labelled as such. However, the majority of bloggers don't come from a PR, marketing or brand background (I'm lucky that I do, so I understand how this whole industry works) so decoding and translating the ASA's statements can be incredibly tricky. I've sat down and researched all of the different issues and found specific responses from the agencies we rely on to oversee our industry, the result of which is below. Hopefully this will clear up issues and ensure we're all operating ethically and within the parameters that have been set for us, setting the way for future generations of bloggers and brands.
Regulations Don't Impact Gifting Or Samples
"The rules don’t prohibit PR companies sending free gifts or samples to bloggers in the hope of receiving a positive review."
In the UK you don't have to declare samples or gifts that have been provided by brands or PR companies, as they theoretically should have no impact on the editorial copy you produce. For example, being sent a new mascara to review doesn't have to be declared - the mascara brand have not specified a positive opinion or outcome as a condition of the mascara being sent, so you're still free to give a 100% truthful review. (However, if money changes hands it's a completely different ballgame.) I've come under a lot of stick in the past for not labeling every single sample as such, but this is neither a legal requirement nor something I feel necessary. Many bloggers have followed the US guidelines and state every sample featured within every post, so the best way to approach this is to do what you feel personally comfortable with.
If You're Paid To Say Something Nice, Declare It.
"If it’s an opinion, then we have no remit or interest in regulating that space. If, however, (a blogger is) paid to say something positive then it becomes an advertisement and they must disclose."
If you've been compensated financially for saying nice things about a product, posting to either your blog or social media, then you have to clearly state it's an advert. This isn't just a sponsored post, but your readers or followers are being fed a marketing message that you wouldn't be spreading otherwise. For example, the ASA recently highlighted an Oreo campaign where YouTubers were paid to talk about Oreo biscuits positively while eating them in the traditionally marketed way (you know, the twist, lick, dunk thing!) Although the YouTube stars stated the video was produced in collaboration with Oreo, the ASA deemed this not to be strong enough and that viewers didn't necessarily know they were being marketed to.
Declaration Parameters Are Simple.
"How can bloggers make it clear if their blog contains paid for content? Signposting it as 'ad', 'advertorial' or 'sponsored content' is a simple way to make it immediately clear to readers."
If you've been paid to feature something then you have to declare it appropriately. If you've been paid to feature a brand or product but your opinion has not being swayed, a 'sponsored post' declaration is sufficient. However, if you've been paid to feature a pre-written piece of content to support a brand's marketing campaign then it can be classified as 'advertorial'. YouTube videos must be declared as an 'ad' in the title so viewers are clear on what they're clicking on before they click on it; it's also important to label WHO is paying to be featured otherwise what's the point of a declaration at all?
Legally, You Don't Have To Declare Compensation For Your 'Time'.
"If you choose to write a new article on your own site and the advertiser has no control over the content, then the article is unlikely to be considered advertising."
There have been so many rumours flying around the bloggersphere, stating that if the brand in question has no influence over written text within an article (even if you've been paid) then you don't have to declare it as sponsored. This is factually correct, but ethically unsound. I always declare whenever I've received payment for an article because I'm not ashamed that I make an income from this site; I personally feel it's important to be honest when you've been paid to feature something, regardless of whether you've been paid to say something nice.
You Don't Have To Declare Support Of Sponsored Content.
"Sharing links socially is not advertising. Being paid to share would be."
If you write a sponsored piece of content and share that content across your social networks (i.e. via a tweet,) then you don't have to label that individual piece of content as sponsored; the main reason is that readers will click on the link and see the article clearly labelled as a collaborative piece. If you're choosing to promote that piece yourself, without being asked, then there's no need to mention that you've been financially compensated. However, if you've been paid to send five tweets or upload three instagram pictures to promote your written piece, then they do have to be declared as sponsored.
Image Declarations Are Permitted Under Current Guidelines.
"Using graphics to indicate advertising content is likely to be acceptable, but could be problematic if consumers cannot read them."
One common trick deployed by sneaky SEO agencies is providing you with an image that features a declaration, rather than letting you specify it's a sponsored post within written text. This helps them from an SEO point of view, as Google's spiders can't necessarily read images and don't classify the content as unnatural. Although this has been identified as outside of guidelines and widely accepted as a little bit dodgy, the only issue the ASA and CAP have is that the image can clearly be seen by readers. To cover yourself, it's always a good idea to state with written words when you're working with a brand - just in case something goes wrong.
The Blogger Isn't Completely Responsible
"Under the Advertising Code, although the blogger would be named as part of any ASA investigation into misleading advertising, ultimately the buck would stop with the advertiser. If a paid for entry on a blog wasn’t disclosed we would investigate the advertiser and hold them accountable."
The ASA understand that the blogger is the end platform and that the brand or agency should be doing their utmost to work within ethical boundaries; they understand that this is a whole new area for many bloggers that have never worked within advertising or marketing, so they need to be guided responsibly by the people they're working with. Although you don't want to get burned, it's good to know that the brands trying to generate positive coverage without declaring it's been paid for will be held fully accountable. Although, as bloggers, we're responsible for our own content and sites, the brands working with us are also subject to accountability.
The ASA Will Out Non-Cooperative Bloggers
"If a blogger is unwilling to cooperate then we can consider a range of sanctions to bring them into line. One (sanction) is to shine a light on those blogs that aren’t playing by the rules."
Although there's not a huge amount the ASA can do when it comes to blogs, as we're independent creators that are responsible for our own content, they have made no quarms about the fact they're prepared to 'name and shame' bloggers and sites that refuse to abide by their regulations. For a blogger, our reputation is everything; we build our entire sites on the principles of honesty, integrity and transparency, so being publicly named as a blogger operating outside of the law is not going to to us any favours.
I'm aware that's still a lot of information to take in, but essentially if you've been paid by a brand it's always best to declare it in the clearest way possible. Statements such as 'this is a sponsored post in collaboration with xyz brand' are well understood, offer clarity and ensure you're covered if anything would to go wrong. However, it's worth nothing the following...
1. There is no indication of where you should declare a post as sponsored, i.e. at the beginning or end of a post, in the title or within the description box.
2. There's no specific wording provided as an example; you're still free to declare in the way you see fit, as long as your readers clearly understand they're being 'advertised' to.
3. Much of the current guidelines are still open to interpretation: this is all new territory and the only thing the ASA and CAP can do is to offer guidance and wait for someone to do something really wrong that they can use as an example.
I've no doubt that the regulations and expectations will continue to evolve over time, but these statements provide us with a starting point and a clear understanding of what we have to do in the here and now. If you have any further questions, comments or concerns, then please do let me know if the comments below and I'll do my best to address them as best I can.
1. The ASA's own blog post, from which I've taken quotes, can be found here.
2. An article written by CAP, which features questions from bloggers and brands, can be found here.
3. The Guardian's article on YouTubers and the Oreo campaign can be found here.
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