by Denisa Hejlova,
Charles University, Prague
In September 2020, a Danish influencer paid a fine of 60,000 Danish kroner (approx. 8,000 EUR) for covert advertising. The unidentified influencer, who has a ”large number of followers on Instagram”, marked 17 posts from March 2017 to December 2018 with the hashtags #Ad, #spons and #GAW, however, the Danish consumer ombudsman stated that this was not considered enough for the users to recognize it as advertising (Nord News, 2020).
Seen through the lens of the current pandemic, the problem of covert or hidden advertising on social media might seem small, or even insignificant. However, the Covid-19 crisis has dramatically increased the time we spend at home in front of our screens, online, including the time spent on social media. Although overall, marketing budgets are shrinking, the percentage of share spent on online activities is rising. According to our own research, 60 % of marketers used influencer marketing in 2019 in the Czech Republic (Hejlová et al.,yet unpublished).
Covert advertising: is it really a problem?
Despite consumer protection laws and social media policy, a large number of influencer marketing activities still remain undisclosed as advertising. Although there is still a lack of research on this topic, in general, we can say that Scandinavian influencers disclose advertisers more often then, for example, Czech or Slovak influencers. Recently, Charles R. Taylor, an editor of the International Journal of Advertising, called for more research into influencer marketing (Taylor, 2020). The consumer protection laws are based on a simple premise: that the consumer has the right to know when he or she is the target of advertising – and that the consumer must be able to distinguish when he or she encounters a paid promotion (as opposed to an unpaid, authentic recommendation or journalistic content).
But is this premise still relevant? According to a Global Communications Report issued by the Annenberg School of Communication (2018), 64 % of communication professionals agreed that in five years (i.e. in 2023) “the average person will not be able to make a distinction between paid, earned, shared and owned media when they are consuming information”. And, more importantly, 59 % stated that “the average person will not care whether the paid, earned, shared and owned media are clearly distinguishable” (Global Communications Report, 2018).
Influencer marketing as an ethical challenge
It seems that the conceptual differences between “journalistic content” and “advertising”, where the former is characterized as free, objective and unbiased, while the latter is recognized as paid, openly persuasive and goal-oriented, has vanished. In the old days of “traditional media”, some media theorists were blaming the gatekeepers, agenda-setters, media owners and, of course, public relations practitioners for steering or even manipulating the public covertly in a certain direction, in somebody’s interest, or by promoting certain opinions. Today, even communication professionals themselves see the practice of “paying social media influencers to communicate favourably” as an ethical problem: according to the European Communication Monitor, 76,5 % of communication professionals perceive it as a moderate or extreme ethical concern (Zerfass et al., 2020, p. 28). Notably, 77,2 % of communication professionals are moderately or extremely concerned about using sponsored social media posts and sponsored articles on news websites (Zerfass et al., cit. ibid.).
Influencers: your para-social friends
There was a deep hope held by many who believed that the internet would bring democratization, transparency and more honest and authentic peer-to-peer, citizen-to-citizen communication. In many ways, digital communication has fulfilled this hope. We have seen users and audiences connected in a manner and to a degree which before was difficult or even impossible to realize, from knitting circles to firearm enthusiasts. However, the lure of authenticity and sharing of personal (and often private) interests has been commercially exploited, if not abused, by many marketing and communication professionals. Since influencer marketing first appeared it has steadily spread and today, it can be found anywhere in the world from Albania to Zimbabwe. The attraction of influencer marketing is based on two premises; the good-old Walter Lippmann’s premise, that people believe other people who influence them (opinion leaders), and, our tendency to more readily believe a message when we think it is an authentic recommendation and not paid advertising.
People think of influencers as their “friends”, distant significant others, regardless of fact that the relationship is only virtual, “hyperreal”, or “simulated”, as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would probably put it. Young people, more so than others, spend an enormous amount of time with their favourite influencers. They talk to them, praise or criticize them and build relationships with them, even though they are virtual. They consider influencers as their real friends, yet psychology calls this a “parasocial relationship”. But nobody wants to go out with a friend who suddenly starts selling them personal insurance in a pub (to quote recent research, “Including a sponsorship disclosure negatively affects the influencers credibility”, Veirman and Hudders, 2019). Influencers know that and they are reluctant to disclose their advertising because of that: they fear losing the relationship, the trust, and the intimacy that they have built up with their followers. Moreover, influencer marketing works very well for products which cannot be legally advertised on social media, such as tobacco (Hejlová et al., 2019).
More law enforceability, more marketing literacy
You might ask why social media companies don’t regulate this covert advertising. In fact, in most cases this activity is a breach of their own regulations. By law and by their own social media policy, ads are supposed to be disclosed– but “Nemo iudex sine actore”, when there’s no petitioner, there’s no trial. It seems like society has given up trying to distinguish between the authentic and the fake, the own experience and the paid stunt, the review and the paid claque (applause). There’s no wonder people call it the post-truth society. The question is: shall we acquiesce, or shall we fight the battles, even if they are seemingly insignificant? If we choose the latter option, we must understand that the path is complicated and includes the education of the public, influencers, and companies: the public has the right to know and the influencers have the duty not to cover up. Covert influencer marketing is more effective, but less ethical – if you still believe in a society where facts matter. Also, the professional community should not blindly accept the “Wild West” practices and push influencers and companies to disclose their ties. For example, in the Czech Republic, a few communication professionals, influencers, companies and academics formed a coalition and proposed a new Code of Ethics in influencer marketing with an open register, where “ethical” influencers can register and comply with the idea of fair influencer marketing (Férový influencer, September 16, 2020). Last but not least – people need to be educated in new forms of literacy, including marketing literacy, to be able to identify new forms of deception.
Hejlová, D., Kulhánek, A,, Schneiderová, S. and Klabíková Rábová, T. (2019). Analysis of Presumed IQOS Influencer Marketing on Instagram in the Czech Republic in 2018–2019. (2019). ADIKTOLOGIE Journal, 1, 7–15. https://doi.org/10.35198/01-2019-001-0001
Férový influencer (2020). Retrieved Sept 16, 2020, from https://ferovyinfluencer.cz
Global Communications Report (2018). Annenberg School of Journalism. Retrieved Jannuary 6, 2019, from http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/2018-global-communications-report-evolution-of-ethics.pdf
Influencer pays a fine of 60,000 kroner for covert advertising. (2020, Sept 16). Nord News. https://nord.news/2020/09/16/influencer-pays-a-fine-of-60000-kroner-for-covert-advertising/
Taylor, C. R. (2020). The urgent need for more research on influencer marketing. International Journal of Advertising, 39(7), 889–891. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650487.2020.1822104
Veirman, M. D., & Hudders, L. (2020). Disclosing sponsored Instagram posts: The role of material connection with the brand and message-sidedness when disclosing covert advertising. International Journal of Advertising, 39(1), 94–130. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650487.2019.1575108
Zerfass, A., Verhoeven, P., Moreno, A., Tench, R., & Verčič, D. (2020). European Communication Monitor 2020. Ethical challenges, gender issues, cyber security, and competence gaps in strategic communication. Results of a survey in 44 countries. Brussels: EUPRERA/EACD.