Unfortunately the last few years have lacked all of those elements, which has seen a huge amount of confusion about the way in which bloggers are required to declare their commercial interests. If you've been living under a rock for the past week or so, you may not have noticed that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have released new guidelines which outline the way in which brands and bloggers are suggested to work together. In my opinion they offer no further clarity, only muddy the waters even more, proving that right now we can't rely on independent regulatory bodies to hold our hand through a confusing time. I've attempted to break down the pre-exisiting guidelines before (read my breakdown of the guidelines and what they mean here) but after a further conversation with the ASA it seems that even my assumptions were way off the mark. There's so much ambiguity and room for interpretation that it undermines what they're trying to achieve; although I totally appreciate blogging and vlogging are new mediums and it will take years to fine tune guidelines that work for everyone, I just don't think enough is being done.
I took it upon myself to develop a manifesto of recommendations for change a little while ago (read my six point manifesto and sign it here) and still stand by this wholeheartedly. However, it's become abundantly clear that we need to take it upon ourselves to regulate from the inside out and act in a way we deem to be ethical and transparent. Yes, some bloggers are ruining it for the rest of us. Yes, some bloggers think they can get away with never declaring commercial interests. Yes, some bloggers will do everything in their power to find loopholes and convince themselves they're acting within guidelines when they're not. Yes, those individuals will suffer in the long-term as their readers step away after no longer being able to trust their 'impartial' opinion. In all honesty, I'm taking it upon myself to stop caring about what everyone else is doing and concentrate on my own policies and way of working - because until serious change is made from 'above', we're continually going to be fighting a losing battle.
It's actually impossible right now to report another blogger to the ASA, as they either ask you to resolve it with the blogger directly or dismiss the complaint entirely; in my opinion this is reflective of the lack of understanding the industry actually has of the bloggersphere and the way in which we work. However, if we take it upon ourselves as individuals to be as transparent and ethical as possible, then we're ahead of the game and imparting trust with our readers. That's all we can ask for. In the interests of providing a little helping hand that's completely absent from any authority or regualatory body right now, I've outlined the five things every blogger needs to know about declaration, guidelines and transparency - based on the newest guidelines to be published. I hope it's helpful.
1. AN 'AD' IS AN 'AD' IF YOU DIDN'T CREATE IT
I've read and re-read the new guidelines multiple times, but if it wasn't for the opportunity to speak to someone directly I would be placing annoying 'ad' labels all over this site that don't actually need to be there. According to the ASA, a paid for piece of content only needs to be declared as an advertisement if you didn't actually write it yourself, i.e. if you post those annoying pre-written pieces that SEO agencies like to place on sites with a high DA. If you're commissioned to write a review or post supporting a brand's campaign, and you retain creative/editorial control, then you do not need to declare this as an 'ad'. Fact checking, a read through or final approval do not make it an advert as the opinion and content is still yours. (The same goes for video content - unless someone else creates the video and you post it on your channel, it's not an ad.) Right or wrong, this is what they recommend.
2. MAKE IT CLEAR THERE'S A COMMERCIAL PARTNERSHIP
Regardless of the fact that you don't need to state that the majority of sponsored content is an ad, you do need to make it clear that there's a commercial partnership at the end of any collaborative post (or video). Your readers need to understand in an instantly recogniseable way that you've been paid to write that piece of content, even if you've retained creative and editorial control. It's up to you how you do this, as there's no specific example being provided right now, but just make sure that you're comfortable and clear. I'm going to continue to use 'this is a sponsored post' as it's what I've been using up until this point, but essentially I've been told off the record to 'sit tight and see what happens.' Fabulous.
3. SPONSORED IS NOT ENOUGH
Even though I've been using the word 'sponsored' on my site for the best part of five years, apparently in January 2014 the ASA starting advising people that 'sponsored' wasn't enough. They don't deem it to be clear enough for consumers, nor is it implicit that the content is paid for. They recommend 'ad', 'advert' or 'advertorial' instead (although only for pre-written content that you don't have editorial control over as outlined above,) which is interesting considering sites like the Daily Mail and Get The Gloss are still using this 'inadequate' word to declare placed and paid for content. It does make you think: is it obvious to your mum, nan or best mate that 'sponsored' means paid for? Probably not.
4. SAMPLES DON'T NEED TO BE DECLARED
Although there's been so much to-ing and fro-ing about the issue of sample declaration, it's stated in the new guidelines that free samples and gifting opportunities don't have to be declared in any way, shape or form - as long as they're not a form of payment (i.e. if a brand has given you a hoover in return for posting their pre-written piece of content about hoovers.) I have a general declaration at the end of every post for clarification and transparency - but this isn't necessary. It's up to you how you let readers know you've featured a sample, rather than having to adhere to guidelines or recommendations.
5. YOU CAN ASK QUESTIONS ANONYMOUSLY
There are more grey areas than I think there were before, but the good thing is you can contact the ASA absolutely free of charge and in confidence to ask any question at all. If you're not clear as to how you're supposed to declare a partnership, which statements are ok to use or what your obligations are, then there's a free anonymous line you can call to get the answers you need. You can also email the team at the ASA directly to get written recommendations specific to your query, covering your back if there were to be any issue in the future. Be prepared for wishy-washy answers and recommendations rather than prescriptive advice, but it's a good place to start if you're unsure.
Right now there's still lack of clarity about what we should and shouldn't be doing, but as long as you're operating in a way you deem to be ethical and transparent then that's all you can do. Blogging and vlogging is a completely new industry and unfortunately the relevant bodies can't keep up; the latest guidelines are part of a five year plan, but in the next five years the boundaries will have completely changed again and thrown up a vast number of further questions. Social media channels such as Instagram and Periscope are on their radar, but who knows when they'll start cracking down and holding bloggers to account when they're being paid £5000 to post a picture of the newest makeup launch without their followers realising. Unfortunately it's an area the majority are scared of tackling; I was contacted about an expose piece in a huge broadsheet paper (investigating the amount of undeclared content and how consumers were being duped,) only for it to become an article about how a new wave of influencers are making money from snapping pretty pictures. I dispair.
Collectively let us just act responsibly, be honest with our readers and think of the long-term pain caused by short-term gain. That's the only thing we can do.