As consumers, it’s no shock that celebrities are paid to endorse products. They can feature in a perfume ad, turn up at a product launch, or provide the voiceover for a box of cereal – and no one is under the impression that they did that just because they fancied it.
The rules for bloggers and online influencers have always been a lot stricter. Everything they promote needs to be clearly distinguishable as an advert, be it by announcing that they’re working together, or by a not-so-subtle footnote. So why is it that, historically, celebrities have never had to formalise these paid arrangements, and why do we feel so differently about people who have found their fame online taking part in promotions?
Blogging, vlogging and any other kind of user-generated content have always been about glimpsing into someone else’s lifestyle. It can be extraordinary, or incredibly ordinary – which actually it is more often than not. It goes a step beyond reading a guidebook, Wikipedia page or even a holiday – as it’s a way of finding out about culture in a totally different way.
User generated content is a form of communication that’s fundamentally about honesty. People have followings based on confessional blog posts, and many share content daily, resulting in audiences that really do know almost everything about them, even if they’ve never spoken.
People like Jim Chapman have often spoken about how vlogging was a way of building his self-esteem. This is an issue, of course, which a lot of people can relate to. Many find comfort in seeing someone speak openly about their struggles. It’s a good feeling to find there is someone out there who shares your worries. It’s strangely mesmerising to watch someone who lives a life actually not too dissimilar to your own, speaking openly about that life.
This is perhaps where the difference lies, because when followers suddenly start seeing their favorite online personality, to whom they always felt like they could relate, suddenly on an incredibly luxurious holiday, draped in Gucci, or with a lifetime supply of Oreos – it’s a little confusing. A lot of these people have made their names by living fairly normal lives, so bombarding their feeds with products to encourage followers who probably haven’t just had a similar influx of cash would certainly feel odd.
For most online influencers, transparency shouldn’t be a problem. It’s been hard building up their following, and they’re not about to throw it all away by working with a brand that their followers can easily tell is doling a big pay out. More often than not, they’ll only promote items that they would actually use. This is great, but also where the problem lies. If they would be speaking about it anyway, then why should they announce that they’re being paid?
The ASA is clear on this – a payment means an announcement, but doesn’t mean #ad as many people assume. The solution really lies in language and creativity. Mention the partnership in a way that feels natural, be that tongue-in-cheek or with links to a campaign. With a platform based on honesty, there’s really no way around it.