There is no such thing as a free lunch, but that’s something the Advertising Standards Authority has forgotten when it comes to online content creators. It’s increasingly asking content creators to use hashtags that are misleading and misrepresentative of the true nature of the content they’re meant to label. The latest suggestion — #freebie — whenever an influencer writes about a product they were sent for review purposes, casts this content as lightweight and fluffy and risks giving readers the impression that opinion online is either the same as a bought-and-paid-for ad or that the products and services bloggers receive to test and review are simply trifling little gifts, not part of the work.
The ASA guidelines when it comes to bloggers, content creators and influencers
For several years the ASA has been grappling with how to regulate and guide online content creators so that the blogs, social media updates, pictures and videos they share are transparent and ethical when it comes to brand campaigns.
This is something BritMums has championed since we were founded more than 10 years ago, with our pioneering Ethical Blogging and Blogging with Integrity Campaigns, the first of their kind in the UK.
Now the ASA is suggesting that bloggers et al. use the term #freebie on social media when they’re received a product or service to review. On the face of it, it might sound reasonable.
But this recent story on the BBC site demonstrates its one-sided approach. An article about online clean queen Mrs Hinch shows how the ASA puts a burden on online content creators that it doesn’t impose on print content. The piece reads:
Influencers must clearly label content that has been paid-for or for which they have received gifts or loans. #Ad or #sponsored are examples, and must now be prominently displayed at the beginning of the post, rather than buried away among other hashtags.
Sounds reasonable, yes? Naturally anyone who has been paid to produce content should make that apparent at the outset by using #ad or #sponsored in the title and at the top of the content. But here’s where there’s a problem:
Even gifts that are made without a requirement to post about them afterwards must be declared if they appear in social media content. #Freebie is suggested as a label
If it’s online it’s an ad; if it’s in print in editorial?
Consider this though:
Anyone who’s worked in print knows that the reviews, features and shopping guide newspapers and magazines do with beauty, packaged food items, fashion, and other products make use of gifted or loaned products. Every fashion spread features clothes provided by the labels, with models who’ve had their faces made up with makeup frequently provided for free to the makeup artists. But there’s no expectation that these will be called “Advertising” or even “Advertising feature”.
(Don’t even get us started on the travel content. Much of the travel content in UK publications originates as group or individual press trips where costs are covered by the destination or a combination of hotels, restaurants, airline. To call write-ups about press trips “ads” is already a bit misleading in that unless the destination/hotel/etc is approving and vetoing content, it is under the control of the content creator.)
‘I think these rules are being put together by individuals who have no idea what we actually do.’ — Nell Heshram, The Pigeon Pair & Me
The #freebie tag also minimises, and even undermines, the work that online content creators do. ‘They’re just doing it for the freebies!’ uninformed people shout, not understanding the amount of hard work and tech know-how that goes into creating a successful online brand. Receiving product for free or as a loan to try, test and review is the only way many online reviewers can operate. That provision should be acknowledged in the review but considering the effort that goes into a review post means it is no freebie. This is something provided so an expert can pass along their knowledge to their engaged followers, not some bit of swag that they’ve picked up in a giveaway.
Why does the ASA keep getting it wrong?
We can’t help but wonder if the ASA is pushing for this tag on tech gadget posts (which are mostly written by men) as well as cleaning products and beauty items (which are mostly written by women).
The ASA is trying to make online content that has brand involvement more clear. But this latest suggestion of #freebie demonstrates that it does not really understand online and its creators. What’s more, it continues to advise misleading practices online while ignoring the same behaviour that takes place in print.