VidCon 2020 included an interesting new feature : a Q&A with the UK's advertising regulator - the Advertising Standards Authority. The most exciting part (perhaps just for me) was that it was Hashtag Ad in the moderating hot-seat. It meant that I got to quiz my old colleagues on the ins and outs of the rules and regulations for influencer marketing. Importantly, the interactive format also meant that the audience could ask all those questions they've been dying to raise with the ASA. Representing the ASA was Sumandeep Sohi and, from the CAP Copy Advice Team, Sam Wilson.
Now, admittedly, I do get to visit the ASA/CAP a lot, because I still have friends and connections there and, quite frankly, without my links to the ASA, there'd be no Hashtag Ad Consulting. But it's a rare treat to be able to really find out what they've been doing since I left and to channel many of the questions that I get asked frequently over to the guys that continue to make and enforce the regulations.
It was also important that we delved deeper than simply "we've published guidance, go read it". Agencies, brands and platforms generally know what the basic rules are, they know that disclosure is not optional but they also need to know exactly how to disclose, which relationships need to be disclosed, which are the best labels to use and where to put them and ultimately, who's responsible when it all goes wrong ...?
So, what were the key talking points?
Relationships with other regulators
The ASA explained that they work proactively with other regulators such as the CMA (UK) and FTC (US) and pointed to their recent research on ad labelling as an example of how they invite other authorities to submit information to help inform CAP guidance. They also explained that they had the option of working with Trading Standards in the event that the influencer or brand did not comply with a ruling.
Relationships with platforms
When asked how the ASA ensures that their staff know and understand all the latest developments in the influencer sphere, they explained that they seek to engage with major platforms e.g. TikTok but that they had not, as yet, conducted any investigations against ads on TikTok.
Stricter rules for influencers than journalists?
The audience were keen to find out why their appeared to be a discrepancy in the rules between journalists who could accept PR gifts/trips without mention in an article, and influencers who had to use a prominent AD-GIFTED type label for gifts in each post. The ASA said their rules did not cover "PR" so they could not investigate journalists for articles that may have been influenced by gifting but they said the CMA would probably be interested in this practice as it seemed as if it could be covered by the Consumer Protection Regulations.
Too many Hashtag AD's?
The ASA was questioned on whether social media had become saturated with posts featuring ad disclosures and whether they considered that had a diluting or potentially misleading effect on consumers who may not be able to identify genuine ads. The ASA response was that there were countless sources of advice on how to disclose correctly (so no excuse for getting it wrong!) They also discussed how it was not possible to investigate false disclosures because, if an ad was not genuinely an ad, it was not for them to investigate!
Pressure to not disclose
The ASA was asked if they were aware that some brands actively pressured their content creators to not disclose their commercial relationship in posts. The ASA said that was concerning because there was a joint responsibility for both the brand and the influencer to disclose the relationship. They pointed out that both the brand and influencer are named in their published investigations.
Overall it was an engaged, lively discussion with a good range of questions from the audience and the regulators showed they were willing to address all topics that came up. From my perspective, I think it's really important that the regulators continue to attend and participate in events like these in order to stay up-to-date on the industry's key concerns and to react to the major issues of the moment. Perhaps it would have been better to also have a CMA representative and maybe an FTC or other international regulator present to help address issues that fell outside the ASA's remit but that may be an option for 2021 instead.