/ 1 March 2019

Social media influencers must #ad it

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

If you’re an avid social media consumer you may have noticed a new hashtag, #ad, or the use of words such as “sponsored” or “partnership”.

Last month, for instance, make-up artist Mihlali Ndamase, who has more than 500 000 followers on Instagram, wrote “#ad” on her post promoting Revlon’s Kiss Cushion Lip Tints. She did the same on February  5 in her post promoting a discount on Daniel Washington watches for Valentine’s Day.

Fashion and beauty specialist Afika Jadezweni said who people promote particular brands can earn between R2 500 and R60 000 a post. Another digital influencer, Palesa Kgasane, said her colleagues earn between R500 and R50 000 a post.

“Payment really depends on one’s following, what the client wants and how much you’re willing to offer them in terms of your services,” said Kgasane. “Because you have multiple social media platforms — and sometimes even blogs — you charge as per your rate card, depending on your following. It can be a campaign or a one-off post.”

The introduction of the #ad hashtag follows the circulation of new draft rules by the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) in November last year, which closed for public comment this past Sunday. These require social media influencers to disclose when they are promoting sponsored products.

The ARB’s intention is to “provide a clear set of rules around social media marketing to ensure the protection of consumers and the promotion of ethical conduct by brand marketers and their representatives across all social media platforms and activities”, the document stated. “South African influencers have not been identifying the nature of their content,” said Gail Schimmel, the chief executive of the ARB.

Influencers, as defined by the ARB, are “individuals or groups paid by brands to engage with social media in a certain way … often an influencer has or is perceived to have the ability to influence the behaviour or opinions of others, but this is not prescriptive to fulfil the role of a paid influencer”.

Schimmel said: “If the content is paid for, the way the consumer receives it is different from the content [that] is not paid for. So the recommendation from an influencer has a very different impact if you know the influencer was paid to make that recommendation. Consumers have the right to know whether the content is paid for.”

Not following the rules won’t result in legal action, but will affect the credibility of a brand or influencer.

“It’s a self-regulatory policy,” said Schimmel, “and we can try [to] have your advertising withdrawn. The reality is that there are marketers and influencers who will say they do not have to listen, but consumers … will stop and say: ‘This does not seem to be true, and why have you not put up a [paid content] indicator?’ 

“For influencers to keep their [jobs] it depends on the consumer perceiving them as authentic and ethical.”

She said the onus is on brands to emphasise the rules to their influencers. “We go to the brands, we do not go to the influencers; the brands have the primary responsibility. An ethical brand should be insisting that their influencers use the indicators and should be putting it in their contracts.

“Most marketers are members of the advertising regulatory board and are bound by our codes.”

This conversation about regulating social media advertising is new in South Africa, but not abroad; the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, already have regulations in place.

One reason these rules are necessary became apparent when influencers were paid top dollar to market the Fyre Festival. In 2017, festivalgoers were promised a glorious art and music event on the private island of in the Bahamas. They were told to expect luxurious accommodation, gourmet chefs and top acts. Instead they were left stranded on another island with no power and entertainment and accommodation in disaster-relief tents. Instead of gourmet food they received just a single cheese sandwich. Billy McFarland, the co-founder of the Fyre Festival, is serving six years in jail for fraud, and the influencers are caught up in a debate about whether they should also be held accountable.

The ARB guidelines include not having deceptive, false or misleading content or making deceptive claims or offers. Messaging should be responsible and authentic.

Schimmel said the rules will become official in a few months. If influencers do not comply, “we will call for the material to be pulled. The ARB is primarily aimed at consumer protection, not punishment.”

Advertising regulations ‘might curb deception’

The Mail & Guardian spoke to South African-based influencers to find out whether they intend to implement the new rules.

Lesego Legobane, known as Thickleeyonce, is a “lifestyle influencer” on Instagram with 417 000 followers. She said: “I always say with paid ads, followers can always pick it up, because whether you are authentic or not, when you are doing an ad for brands it’s kinda always obvious — and followers can always tell. Adding that it’s an ad doesn’t make a difference. If anything, it makes my life easier, because I would not be held accountable for whatever it is that the brand is doing should anything go down south.

“It’s only fair for the audience to know in that particular moment that this is a paid-for post, and what I am doing is advertising to you.”

Legobane believes the rules will make influencers tap more into their creativity. “It will put pressure for people to create something captivating and worth looking at.”

Sarah Langa has just over 200 000 followers on Instagram. She said: “Before, there were not so many rules and regulations as to how digital and social media could be done. We have to be more cautious now and comply with the rules.

“It’s always a responsibility of our clients to inform us — and always make us aware,” she added.

Palesa Kgasane, who primarily works as an editor/writer for her online platform Mzansi Moodboard, also does her influencing work on Instagram, where she has 11 700 followers. She said the rules are fair, but pose a challenge. “I’m all about authenticity, but I think we are all very aware that making content sellable without sounding like a salesperson is a tough challenge.

“It will also challenge marketers to think out of the box when approaching influencers to collaborate with … It’s also going to require a lot of honesty from influencers/content producers.”

Kgaugelo Maphai, managing director at the MediaShop, said: “I think for micro influencers [the rules] may hamper their audience figures. Micro influencers are trying to build up their following by pushing out authentic content … However, I believe that by adding in an identifier, it may impact the trust of their followers. I really think rules should be carefully considered before applying them fully and should maybe be an option, should the influencer wish to use them when signing on a brand.”

Fashion and beauty specialist Afika Jadezweni said having identifiers might curb a lot of deception on social media. “Sometimes there is a level of dishonesty, where people want to portray influencing as a kind of naturally earned lifestyle, but actually it creates more trust for your followers and consumers if, once in a while, they see you saying ‘I do not actually like this product’.” 

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust journalist at the M&G