The ACCC is cracking down on social media influencers publishing testimonials and endorsements without disclosing a commercial affiliation.
Influencers rose to prominence in the early days of Instagram, when it was primarily a photo sharing app, and the emerging industry has since matured to become a major component of online marketing. It now accounts for an estimated $560 million of the $13.9 billion Australian digital advertising market, according to industry group IAB Australia and researcher Statista.
Influencers originally published pictures on social media to promote a product or service. While having an intersection with professional photography, an influencer leverages their personal brand that’s crafted by curating social media content. Social media companies have pushed more toward video lately, making influencers move beyond their photography roots.
The appeal of influencer marketing is the perceived authenticity. This hinges on them appearing to genuinely endorse a product, rather than strictly having a commercial interest to do so. Some influencers disclose the commercial arrangement with a company – sometimes with a transparent ‘paid partnership’ banner, other times with a subtle hashtag #ad or #sponsored – many, perhaps even most, don’t do this.
‘It is important social media influencers are clear if there are any commercial motivations behind their posts,’ said ACCC chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb, in a press release. ‘This includes those posts that are incentivised and presented as impartial but are not. The ACCC will not hesitate to take action where we see consumers are at risk of being misled or deceived by a testimonial, and there is potential for significant harm. This action may include following up misconduct with compliance, education and potential enforcement activities as appropriate.’
Influencers purport to have a large social media following who actively engage in the influencers’ field of interest. While this isn’t always true – some ‘buy’ fake followers – many influencers naturally built an organic following. US professional photographer Chris Burkard, for example, has a massive social media following of 3.9 million. This is achieved by posting dazzling landscape, surf, and adventure lifestyle photos. His social media feed is now choc-a-bloc with influencer-style posts for the likes of Nissan, Sony cameras, Polar, Breitling, Fezzari Bicycles, and others.
View this post on Instagram
Australia has no shortage of photography influencers and ambassador programs, sponsored by the likes of Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and other companies. Inside Imaging found multiple cases where a photography influencer makes no disclosure of the commercial relationship in posts endorsing a product.
Photography is a tiny segment of the entire influencer marketing industry. When the ACCC called for public tip offs in January, it was alerted about dodgy influencers mostly operating in beauty and lifestyle, fitness, parenting, fashion, travel, gaming, and technology.
‘The number of tip-offs reflects the community concern about the ever-increasing number of manipulative marketing techniques on social media, designed to exploit or pressure consumers into purchasing goods or services,’ ACCC chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb, said. ‘We want to thank the community for letting us know which influencers they believe might not be doing the right thing. Already, we are hearing some law firms and industry bodies have informed their clients about the ACCC’s sweep, and reminded them of their advertising disclosure requirements.’
The ACCC faces an uphill battle to regulate influencers, as there is a greater tendency to disregard Australian Consumer Law than other advertising and marketing sectors. This may partly relate to the unorthodox pathway to a career. Influencers post online content until their following grows large enough to justify brand partnerships, rather than learning about ethics and standards through a marketing/advertising degree or a professional internship.
This has also made it a challenge to identify who is actually an influencer, and determining the nature of the commercial relationship.
Some brands have a straightforward commercial relationship; while other companies may provide payment in the form of free products or services; or the promise future working opportunities; and some wannabe influencers even publish posts that endorses a product, despite no relationship with the brand.
There have been efforts to establish a set of standards with the formation of an industry body, Australian Influencer Marketing Council (AiMCO). It launched a Code of Practice in 2020, which outlines industry standards that adhere to Australian Consumer Law.