The Dawn, Deception, and Possible Demise of the Influencer

Look! Up in the sky…

Okay, now back down at your phone. See how Instagram has been quietly revolutionizing the online marketing world for the past few years. Beckoning forth, from the far reaches of fashion blogs and reality TV, a powerful new being, that has now emerged with a very powerful-new-being name:

It’s a purse! It’s a car! It’s… The Influencer.

She doesn’t wear a cape (unless somebody pays her to), her costume is ever changing, and her powers can’t exactly bend steel. But she can make companies, and herself, a super lot of money.

Simply put, Influencers are Instagram users with way more followers than you, who—strictly because of this and not much more it seems—are recruited by marketers to hawk every kind of product you can put in front of a camera; from clothing lines, to breakfast smoothies to sun drenched vacation spots. Mere mortals scroll through these images like they’re checking in on a friend’s fabulous weekend, and when they discover that there exists a face cream that their “friend” just can’t live without, suddenly they can’t live without it either. What they may not realize, however, is that that face cream was not recommended from some genuine belief in its benefits, but from the very hands that made the face cream in the first place. Cue the Federal Trade Commission.

Every superhero needs a nemesis.

This “word-of-mouth” role of The Influencer, as it stands, flies in the face of a major tenet of the FTC: that people have the right to know when they are being advertised to. So, in 2015, the FTC came up with a list of Endorsement Guides that called for “clear and conspicuous” disclosure of material relationships between brand and endorser on social media. On Instagram in particular, it was the clear and conspicuous part that wound up being neither of those things.

You may have noticed #sp (sponsored post) or #ad buried in the myriad of other hashtags on certain Instagram posts. Hardly conspicuous. Especially as these “admissions” are usually way down below the third line of text, in the desolate place beyond the “more” button where most users never venture. Or Influencers will often “thank” the brand they’re flouting. While this may hint at a relationship, it’s not clear that the Influencer is being paid to say all these nice things. The truth, here, is kryptonite to The Influencer, so they avoid it all costs. But now, that cost may be coming due.

In April, the FTC tightened up what “clear and conspicuous” means. Hashtags and vague shout-outs aren’t enough. Influencers must come right out and say how they’ve been compensated, and they must do it before, and separate from, any other message. They even went as far as to send out more than ninety individual letters to Influencers reminding them of their duty to disclose. (They wouldn’t say exactly who made up the ninety, but if you’re last name is Kardashian, check your mailbox.)

Perhaps because of this Federal pressure, Instagram itself is now weighing in. Over the next few weeks, the company is rolling out a new “Paid partnership with…” tag on posts and stories. It will be tucked in, clearly and conspicuously, above the image and below the user’s handle. They’ve made it more attractive to Influencers and marketers by touting the tag’s “ability to track and share insights” around a post’s performance, but the end result remains: transparency made too easy not to comply.

So, what does all this mean for Canadian marketers?

The equivalent of the FTC up here is Advertising Standards Canada, and while it wasn’t as quick as the FTC to issue warnings, it has since followed suit. Also like the FTC, ASC doesn’t have much legal power. That’s why they’re “guidelines” and not rules. However, ASC can refer offending parties to the Competition Bureau which does have the power to issue fines against misrepresentation and false advertising. As of this writing however, no such referrals have been made.

Amid all this (frankly toothless) finger wagging, The Influencer has been thriving, carving out a very lucrative corner of digital marketing. But all that seems to be changing as agencies on both sides of the border crack down. Bottom line, if you’re a marketer that recruits Instagram users to post on your behalf, we recommend you get used to being very clear that that’s what you’re up to. Heck, just use Instagram’s new tag. You don’t want to be the first to be under the hammer when it falls.

In this ever-expanding universe of social media, what fate will befall The Influencer? Will she be thwarted by the united powers of government agencies and people that just don’t want to be lied to anymore? Or will she persevere, bolstered by her throng of loyal minions who just don’t care and will continue to purchase those Puma sandals because she wore them on her vacay to Turks and Caicos? What does conspicuous actually mean? Tune in next week for another exciting sponsored post in: The Adventures of… The Influencer!