"What Instagram has essentially allowed for, is a group of people with a large following to grow their fortune from artfully deceptive posts."
Hannah Rawlins discusses the shift in social media towards a predominately advertising-based platform.
It’s 7.00 pm on a Sunday night (Instagram prime-time), and I’m scrolling through my feed when I come across a post from my favourite “self-made billionaire”; Kylie Jenner. Rather than sharing a provocative selfie, she is promoting vitamin pills in the shape of a teddy bear, which claim to stimulate hair growth. I “bear-ly” (sorry) give the post much notice. However, what does catch my eye is the #ad included at the end of the caption. Whilst users have become familiar with the use of this hashtag (along with its counterpart #spon), they weren’t always around. So what is the significance of these seemingly simple additions?
To me, they symbolise a much needed increase in transparency for social media consumers. I recall being 15 and wondering why my favourite fitness influencer only wore a certain brand of shoes and why another celebrity suddenly started flooding my feed with “skinny tea”. What is even more shocking, is that I actually purchased one of these products in an effort to look like a celeb. Unfortunately, I am not alone in my naivety.
Globally, consumers are thought to spend in the upwards of 10 billion dollars on products promoted through social media, by celebrities, every year. Let’s not forget, that Kylie Jenner’s cosmetic company single handedly makes up a large chunk of this, profiting over US $650,000,000 in its first year of production. Jenner often claims the secret to her success is the sheer breadth of consumers her Instagram platform reaches, as she has a whopping 130 million followers and counting. What’s more, you no longer need to be an actress/model/singer or reality star to promote products. There is a new breed of walking, talking advertisements; the omnipresent “influencer”. All you really need to reach influencer status is over 10,000 followers, and you will garner some interest from brands.
What Instagram has essentially allowed for, is a group of people with a large following to grow their fortune from artfully deceptive posts. These posts lead followers to believe that the influencer genuinely loves a product without any exterior endorsement. Sometimes it is obviously staged, such as when no one believed Kim Kardashian West shed 30 kilos of baby weight by using a particular brand of protein powder, rather it was probably a combination of an expensive trainer, personal chef and Kardashian West’s self-discipline. Conversely, sometimes they are carefully curated and subtle, with captions such as “Everybody has been asking me lately how I have such amazing lashes! The secret is (insert brands product here)”. What’s even more devastating is that the caption will be posted alongside an image showcasing the products’ “results”, which in reality is probably just a picture of an influencer who is either genetically blessed or a master of Photoshop.
The fact remains however, that social media users should not have to be detectives to decipher whether a given post is genuine. More importantly, in jurisdictions such as the UK, it is now illegal to post content without fully disclosing that it is a paid advertisement, as stipulated in the Consumers Right Act 2015 (UK). Recognising the growing concern for the potential to mislead social media users, the UK Advertising Standards Agency created the Influencer’s Guide, which outlines the rules pertaining to advertising on social media. Whilst these laws weren’t new per se, certain individuals evidently needed a refresher.
Since the introduction of the #ad, many other efforts have been made to further transparency. In 2017, Instagram and Facebook trialled a tag at the top of a post stating ‘paid partnership,’ which was widely successful and is now common practice. The success of the tag can be accredited to the fact that it offers incentive to brands, as it provides them with data on the popularity of their product. With the tag, companies can now directly compare the engagement with the post to their sales figures. This was a particularly clever approach by Instagram, realising that the best outcomes for consumers would arise via targeting the companies, not the influencer. Furthermore, it reveals how quickly society blames the individual in the spotlight, when we ought to direct our criticism to the companies paying them to post their content.
So, what does this all mean? Well, the significance of these tools goes beyond clarifying when a celebrity has simply been paid to promote a product. These changes reinstate a sense of trust that was destroyed when individuals learnt the truth behind enigmatic paid partnerships. I am sure most millennials can remember the hurt and betrayal experienced when they discovered their idol was using their platform to lure them into buying overpriced products that they didn’t even use, yet alone delivered the results they promised.
Underneath the significance of these changes, is the acknowledgment of the shift in social media from image and lifestyle sharing towards a predominately advertising-based platform. Yet in regards to these changes, Australia is falling behind. Despite rules set in 2017 by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) addressing clear labelling on sponsored content, the following of these guidelines is at the influencer’s discretion. Nevertheless, given that a vast majority of the influencer market live overseas and sell products which deliver internationally, Australians can still reap the benefits of transparency changes.
Until these seemingly dated laws can be rectified in Australia, perhaps the key to protecting consumers is education. By using social media to our advantage, we can spread the message and inform users of the lack of transparency via the very platform that created the issue.