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Social media users set to benefit from new hidden advertising protections

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Social media: Brands have also been warned that compliance is their responsibility too, while influencers have been told that gifts must be disclosed, as well as payments. Photo: Press Association (PA)

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published new guidance for social media companies, brands, and influencers to protect users from hidden advertising.

Working alongside the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Ofcom, social media platforms, and content creators, the regulator has produced resources designed to help those publishing and sharing paid promotions to comply with consumer protection law.

The new principles highlight that everyone involved in creating content and posting online must take responsibility to ensure all ads are labelled correctly.

Brands have also been warned that compliance is their responsibility too, while influencers have been told that gifts must be disclosed, as well as payments, to be open and upfront to followers.

Posts should clearly display that they are paid-for endorsements using #Ad or #Advert and not use unclear terms, such as: #gift, #gifted, or #spon, among other ambiguous hashtags.

This work builds on commitments made by Instagram in 2020 to tackle hidden advertising on its site.

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“Hidden adverts are illegal and harmful. They could persuade people to spend money on things they might not buy if they knew the endorsement was paid for, which is even more concerning now people’s finances are squeezed,” George Lusty, CMA senior director of consumer protection, said.

“Transparency is everyone’s responsibility – from social media platforms to brands and influencers. Those not already doing their part should get up to speed with the law now, to make sure people can quickly and easily identify paid-for content. Following our guides will help them with this.”

The guidance for social media platforms has been broken down into “compliance principles”. Platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest and Twitch have engaged constructively with the CMA in drawing up the guidelines.

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The principles require platforms to be proactive in tackling hidden advertising, including by:

  • Providing their users with tools to label commercial content and to report suspected hidden advertising

  • Improving information to content creators and influencers about what to label as a paid-for endorsement

  • Improving policies and taking action where hidden advertising is found

  • Using technology to identify suspected hidden advertising for action

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Meanwhile, guidance for businesses/brands includes:

  • Being clear with influencers who they pay or send gifts to that they must label these posts in an obvious way

  • Taking action where this does not happen – for example, contacting influencers who are promoting products or services on their behalf and asking them to remove or amend posts to accurately reflect the commercial relationship

  • The guidance is clear that when posts are shared as part of a wider campaign, businesses themselves can be held accountable for misleading customers, as well as influencers.

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Separately, the CMA and ASA’s existing ‘Guide for influencers’ sets out clearly what influencers need to do when sharing paid-for and promoted content online.

The ASA can take action to ban undisclosed ads by influencers and, where an influencer appears unwilling or unable to abide by the rules, impose further sanctions. More information here.

Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, said: “We welcome this guidance, which adds to the existing resources the ASA and CMA have produced to help platforms, brands and influencers stick to the rules. Platforms have an important role to play in making sure advertising content is clearly recognisable. We will continue to work closely with the CMA in this key area.”

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