Influencer marketed has existed in the modern era since the 1930s, but in truth it could be traced back to ancient Rome when gladiators actually endorsed products. However, the word “influencer” only entered the modern lexicon in the past decade and was only officially added to the English dictionary last year.
One of the first widely acknowledged “influencer” collaborations dates back to 1760, when Wedgwood first made a tea set for the wife of King George III. Royalty were the influencers of the era, and Wedgwood quickly marketed his brand as having “Royal” approval. That afforded it such luxury status that the brand is still considered fit for a King or Queen today.
In the 20th century, Coco Channel was among the first – as well as the most enduring – influencers in the world of fashion. Now, social media has allowed anyone the opportunity to become an “influencer,” and offer their recommendations to the masses.
The fact that many people can now make a living as “influencers” has caused old controversies of marketing to reemerge. Are influencers truly impressed by the products and services they tout, or are those paid endorsements a form of advertising? And is enough being done to ensure transparency today?
The Internet in general, and social media more specifically, has blurred the line between “editorial” and “advertising,” and some warn not enough is being to alert the consumer.
“Since the beginning of social media more than a decade ago, ‘Mommy Bloggers’ were the most influential communicators on the Internet,” said technology entrepreneur Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible.
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“So much so, the FTC had to create a Mommy-Blogger law enacted in 2012 that stated any blogger receiving any form of compensation from a company of which the blogger is giving their review has to state that clearly in the first line of their blog,” Safko explained. “It was all too often that a Mommy-Blogger would talk about how wonderful a particular brand of disposable diaper was only to have Proctor & Gamble pull up to their house the following day with a semi-tractor full of free disposable diapers.”
Gray areas and loopholes have emerged, and influencers have generally not had to offer such disclosure.
“This law only applies to bloggers, not Facebook influencers or Instagram, or Twitter, or TicTok influencers,” added Safko. “No such laws are provided by the FTC or the FCC to protect us from other influences who are sponsored, or worse, mainstream media news outlets that are generating revenue from sponsors and owner personal views and agendas.”
Spotlight on Influencers
There is a case to be made that influencers should be required to be far more upfront about when they are being paid by a brand.
“With so many people, young adults in particular, getting information online – the role of ‘influencers’ in promoting brands as well as new products and services deserves close attention,” said Lawrence Parnell, associate professor and director of the Strategic Public Relations program at The Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University.
“While the FTC guidelines are clear enough, they appear to fall short on enforcement – placing the bulk of the responsibility on the influencer to disclose a commercial relationship via a hashtag (e.g. #sponsored) or identifying themselves as an ‘Ambassador’ for example,” added Parnell.
However, some progress has been made on this front.
“Influencers disclosing advertisements within organic content has led to social media platform changes, like Instagram and Youtube including Paid Partnership tags,” said Dustin York, associate professor and the director of undergraduate and graduate communications at Maryville University.
“And there’s been a push for influencers to use #ad in their copy when being compensated (which has thus spurred a trend of wannabe influencers posting #ad content in hopes to be seen as more popular than they are). But what has all this really changed,” pondered York. “Product placement on TV has happened for years, and sponsored articles in newspapers are not new. And now, Instagram influencer @lilmiqeula is literally a digital avatar – currently just shy of three million followers – and sells a variety of products. The line between authentic voice and paid sponsorships is no longer recognizable.”
It could help the consumer to know when an influencer is paid, and perhaps the incoming Biden administration will look into the matter – but more likely, it could be business as usual, with little done on the subject.
“Financial-conflict disclosure has taken a beating in recent years,” suggested James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business. “We as a society and many of our leaders have put a distance between what we do and how we are compensated for our work. There is little understanding of the importance of acknowledging financial connections between influencers and the products they promote, or even discuss.”
That gap can be a chasm when it comes to social media, warned Bailey.
“Because of its ephemeral nature, social media can have a powerful but fleeting influence, and is often not taken as seriously as it should be,” he added. The immediacy of social media makes it rich ground for conflicts and deceptive practices. Endorsement guides like the one produced by the FTC bring front and center the importance of transparency. Social media influencers have a platform to inform but a duty not to deceive their audiences. Clarity about brand relationships and conflicts ensures the public knows ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ of an endorsement.
Do Consumers Really Care?
The other consideration is that much of the general public may not even care if influencers are paid. But this has been true for years – did anyone really think athletes believe a particular brand of athletic gear to be superior, or a NASCAR driver to care about the sponsorship on his/her car?
In other words, why should anyone expect that influencers are really behind those products?
“The sad truth is consumers don’t give them any more attention than the required legal disclosures delivered in small type or by a fast talker’ in car or finance ads,” suggested Parnell. “Almost everyone overlooks these and focuses on the glamorous and exciting material presented by the celebrity or ‘lifestyle expert.'”
“I am always amazed that millions of followers will believe and follow the advice from a pop, country, or rap singer with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever, just because they had a hit song,” said Safko. “This is now more than fake news and biased reporting. This is a serious lack of credible, truthful, and unbiased source of information.”
In the long run however, disclosure could be good for the brand and the influencer alike.
“Brands that want to be seen as authentic and transparent would be well advised to be more upfront in identifying relationships with influencers so current and prospective customers can make an informed decision,” said Parnell.