It’s no secret that we are all spending A LOT of time online, for both work and leisure. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2015, one-in-five American adults reported going online “almost constantly,” with three-in-four going on daily. As time goes on, online activity levels and time spent on social media will certainly continue to grow. And, as consumers spend more time online, marketers will follow suit with more web-based advertising and influencer marketing.
A recent panel discussion on “Honest Ads and Clear Disclosures,” hosted by the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC), addressed the importance of marketers having an up-to-date understanding of this topic as it relates to online and social media advertising.
All rules and guidelines set out for advertising in traditional media also apply to online/social media advertising. The line between content and advertising may be blurrier in the online world than in traditional media, but marketers’ basic compliance obligations remain the same: to disclose advertising where it exists and to be truthful. As media evolve, if you are uncertain whether a communication or piece of content is advertising, a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of treating it as an ad.
Here are some other changes to bear in mind when marketing online:
Disclosure Medium. If your ad content is in the form of a video, then you should consider making your disclosure the same way. A video ad with a stationary, written disclosure could raise eyebrows among your competitors, industry watchdogs, or both.
Disclosure Placement. If you are advertising on Instagram or Twitter, should your disclosure appear at the beginning of the content or the end? Putting the disclosure at the end is acceptable, but at the beginning is the more conservative approach. Is conservative better? You’ll have to decide that based on your risk tolerance.
Hyperlinks to Advertising. Hyperlinks are a phenomenon specific to the online space; if you have a link directed to ad content, you’ll want to make sure you disclose on the initial contact “landing page” and all other “pages” afterward.
Material Connection. Any time a payment or incentive has been received by a person promoting a product or service, this constitutes a material connection and must be disclosed. This is true in traditional media and just as true in online/social media. You, as the marketer, are responsible for informing the spokesperson of their responsibility to disclose the material connection and to ensure that they are doing so. (This goes for influencers of any kind, including bloggers, You Tubers, etc.) The incentive received by the person promoting your product or service need not be monetary to require disclosure; even a sweepstakes entry or the possibility of “appearing in an ad” can be considered a material connection.
Unpaid Testimonials. What if a consumer makes a statement about your brand without any “incentive” (financial or otherwise)? They can say whatever they want, however, if you re-post the statement on your website, you become responsible for what has been said.
Online Advertising to Kids. Advertising to children online means following all advertising best practices PLUS. Kids are considered especially susceptible to being misled (even if unintentionally on the part of the advertiser). For this reason, marketers should go out of their way to make sure kids understand when they are being advertised to. Net impression matters: it’s not only what you say, but also visual content, use of animated characters, the presence of child-oriented activities, music or other audio content, the age of models, and use of child celebrities, just to name a few. Marketers must have affirmative parental consent before a kid is permitted to connect to an app, and there must be an opt-out alternative prominently visible.
The next frontier for advertising will likely be media such as wearables and augmented reality. What we know for sure is that the rules of the advertising game will become more and more complex as we continue this technology-driven journey we call life.