More rigorous guidelines are needed if influencer marketing is to weed out the ‘bad apples’

The ASA and CAP’s new influencer marketing guide is a step in the right direction but more clarity is still needed to boost credibility.


As influencer marketing matures and budgets continue to rise, so does the need to safeguard the integrity and effectiveness of campaigns in order to maintain consumer trust and authenticity – values at the heart of influencer marketing.

This has been reflected over recent months by a series of industry actions calling for much needed governance to be implemented.

Following Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s call to get rid of the “few bad apples spoiling the barrel” and the CMA’s influencer investigation; September saw the launch of The Influencer’s Guide, a new set of guidelines on advertising disclosure by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP).

Influencer marketing guidelines are not a new notion for CAP, which provided rules for influencers and brands in 2017, detailing best practice for working on affiliate marketing campaigns with influencers.

The difference with The Influencer’s Guide is that it puts the onus on influencers themselves rather than the brands commissioning them, which feels problematic. Responsibility cannot lie solely with influencers. It is brands’ responsibility to exercise due diligence, so accountability must lie with both brand and content creator.

More clarity needed

Despite a disclosure framework being in place for 18 months, the current guideline’s lack of clarity and relevance to influencer marketing has prevented full transparency coming to fruition.

Instead, 2018 has seen highly-publicised examples of misconduct being demonstrated by the likes of reality-star influencers such as Geordie Shore’s Marnie Simpson and Made in Chelsea’s Louise Thompson who both had posts banned by the ASA due to insufficient advertising disclosure.

READ MORE: Being up front about influencer partnerships won’t damage engagement

Whether these misdemeanours are the result of ignorance or rule-flouting, such controversies will tarnish influencer marketing’s reputation and could be avoided with clear and relevant guidelines that are simple to understand and impossible to avoid.

This latest attempt appears to be a less jargon-filled version of existing guidelines, which fail to provide further clarification. The need for a flowchart (provided within the guide) to determine whether content qualifies for necessary disclosure itself demonstrates inherent confusion and illustrates the need for it to be a simple and definitive decision-making process, enabled by relevant education.

The Influencer’s Guide sets out to define an advertorial (#ad) straightforwardly as content where an influencer has been paid (either in money or free gifts) and a brand has “had some form of editorial ‘control’ over the content, including just final approval”.

However, if said collaboration does not fulfil both criteria, content is considered sponsored and therefore is not covered by the CAP guidelines, so action will not be taken in this space. This isn’t to say that if content isn’t considered an advertorial, it is immune from disclosure, as this instead falls under CMA guidelines. Yet despite this guide being created in collaboration with the CMA, specifics for these campaigns are not disclosed within the guide and readers need to seek these guidelines elsewhere.

To truly clean-up what is still a very grey area, influencer marketing needs regulations that are fit for purpose.

This guide speculates briefly on sponsorship, explaining that “The CMA expects influencers to disclose when they’ve received payment, a loan of a product or service, any incentive and/or commission or have been given the product they are posting about for free” though the guide doesn’t quite elaborate on how these exchanges should be disclosed.

This statement sets the tone for the guide which underestimates the diverse ways in which influencer marketing can be used by brands. From traditional sponsored posts and reviews, to ambassador roles and product collaborations, the strength of influencer marketing comes from the breadth of opportunities available, which need to be addressed with individual guidelines.

For example, gifting is still common practice, particularly in fashion and beauty, where it can be used as a way of maintaining existing relationships even when not working on paid campaigns. A trend that seems to have taken off particularly in recent months is for influencers to disclose this as #gifted, but according these guidelines if an influencer decides to post without obligation, this should be treated in the same manner as if an influencer were paid because product has exchanged hands.

This lack of relevancy to the practice continues with the absence of any recognition for the steps that social platforms themselves have begun to take to clarify monetary transactions between brand and influencer. Despite being introduced back in June 2017, Instagram’s sponsored post tagging functionality is not addressed in these guidelines as a means of credible disclosure.

Brands and influencers are yet to gain clear and relevant governance that equips the industry with guidance on how to disclose partnerships effectively. To truly clean-up what is still a very grey area, influencer marketing needs regulations that are fit for purpose based on an understanding of influencer marketing itself and its diverse methods of practice.

Hopefully this is only the first step in a more rigorous investigation to create better guidelines that ensure influencer marketing continues to flourish as an authentic and effective method of reaching consumers.

Sarah Penny is head of content at Marketing Week sister title Influencer Intelligence, the recently rebranded platform for brand and talent partnerships.