When is tweeting really advertising?

Ruth Mortimer is Marketing Week’s editor and a prolific blogger. She won a PPA Award for her forthright and insightful columns on marketing.

Does a paid-for tweet count as an ad? While some Twitter comments are pretty obviously ads – such as P Diddy enthusiastically promoting his Ciroc vodka – it is not always so clear. Some bloggers have recently admitted to being paid to tweet on behalf of companies, without declaring it on the tweets.

Writer Sunny Hundal has admitted that he accepts payment from Sky News in order to tweet about its Murnaghan show on Sunday mornings. He posts news or his opinion on what the show covers. Hundal believes this is not advertising because all journalism is paid-for somehow; many newspaper writers are paid by their media outlets to liveblog or tweet about TV shows.

But is he right? After all, he is promoting the content of a TV show without admitting on his Twitter account in each tweet that he is paid to do so (he claims he does “usually” say at the start of Murnaghan that he is blogging on behalf of the show).

My colleague Lara O’Reilly (@larakiara), deals with this issue by admitting her workplace in her personal Twitter biography with the caveat that she is not always tweeting on behalf of her employer. This makes it clear why sometimes she may comment on marketing stories or post links to the Marketing Week website and on other occasions, she may be discussing her cat.

So Lara deals with this issue through labelling. And indeed labelling has been at the heart of two Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings about promotional tweets.

A campaign by Snickers avoided a ban by the ASA for a Twitter campaign featuring a series of tweets from celebrities including footballer Rio Ferdinand tweeting about hunger and then finally being shown holding a Snickers. The confusion over whether this was a promotion arose because use of the hashtag #spon (meaning ‘sponsored tweet’) was not brought in until the last tweet in the series.

The ASA criticised Snickers’ decision not to label the whole series of tweets with #spon but accepted that the previous tweets’ meanings only became clear or obviously advertising when the final tweet and picture was viewed.

Nike was less lucky with its brush with the ASA. The sportswear company recently had a Twitter campaign using footballer Wayne Rooney’s tweets banned when the ASA ruled it was promotion rather than the player’s genuine thoughts. The tweet, which encouraged people to click on a Nike website (gonike.me/makeitcount), was apparently composed by a member of Nike’s marketing team rather than Rooney himself, so was judged to be an overt ad. Nike is challenging the legal ruling at the time of writing.

It’s hard to see too much difference between the two cases except for labelling. Rio Ferdinand was clearly being fed lines by Snickers, but by using #spon, it sneaks past the ASA as unpalatable but acceptable. When Nike does the same but also links to a brand site with no #spon listed, it is a step too far.

I’m not sure that #spon would work as a mark to differentiate all paid-for tweets from people’s random musings. The comments of someone like Sunny are not so much sponsored, it is more that he is working on behalf of an employer that he hasn’t disclosed. Perhaps he could rectify that by adding his Sky News affiliation to his profile.

So do we need a new hashtag or selection of hashtags to alert people to when tweets are paid-for? Or is there a better way that this can be handled? After all, the ASA’s code is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ – that’s what everyone wants from their tweets. Now we just need to work out how to get there in the most useful way.

Snickers campaign

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