CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to clarify that not all letters sent by the FTC to social media celebrities and brands included a finding that they were in violation of the FTC’s influencer guidelines. Some celebrities, including Heidi Klum, received letters that merely questioned whether they had a relationship with the brand in question, which Klum has denied.
If there’s something influencers hate more than that name, it may be disclosing what content brands have paid them to create and promote.
Katie Sturino, the founder of blog The 12ish Style and the host of “Project Runway’s” spin-off web series “Behind the Seams” said she feels “so strongly about disclosing sponsored posts” during a panel on influencer marketing hosted by Bloglovin,’ but that belies her take on the growing awareness of bloggers and social media stars being paid for even tacit endorsement of products and companies.
“I hate telling people things are sponsored, especially when I really love the brand,” Sturino said to an audience of brand representatives and other influencer types that groaned and nodded their assent. “Immediately it just feels like, ‘Ugh, she’s just getting a paycheck.’ Everyone tries to work with brands that they feel good about.”
Sturino added that she’s “always nervous” about sponsored content, but then said she’s “never” experienced any backlash to such content.
But there’s a chance that Sturino’s web site audience and 50,000 Instagram followers, along with the combined nearly 500,000 followers of her three dogs, aren’t quite sure what content she’s being paid for. While her output is focused on plus-size fashion ideas, there is little in the way of disclosure outside of hyperlinks to where what she’s wearing can be bought and tags showing her location, like what hotel she stayed in on a recent trip abroad.
This type of disclosure, if it can be called that, isn’t enough for the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that in recent months has been cracking down on influencer marketing as it’s turned into the go-to path for companies to advertise products and create “brand awareness.”
After issuing stricter guidelines calling for any sponsored content to be “conspicuously disclosed” with “unambiguous” language, like #sponsored within the first three lines of text, the FTC sent letters to dozens of the most popular social media celebrities, their agents and the brands they promoted. In some cases, the FTC letter said “it appears” the celebrity and the brand had a “business relationship” that was not properly disclosed under the guidelines. In other cases, the FTC simply questioned whether such a relationship existed.
Celebrities who received letters from the FTC include Kourtney Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, Heidi Klum, Victoria Beckham, Zendaya and Emily Ratajkowski. Letters were also sent to brands like Adidas, Chanel, Lorac Cosmetics, Chiara Ferragni Collection, Yves Saint Laurent and Puma, among others.
Michelle Lopez, who has 122,000 Instagram followers and founded food blog Hummingbird High, admitted that she’s seen backlash to sponsored posts.
“If your voice gets too erased, the audience can tell and the content tanks,” Lopez said. “I try to push back but I’m just a blogger fighting against what can be a really big company.”
But the FTC didn’t come up during Wednesday’s talk, and the panel of influencers didn’t seem concerned with working within the still expansive bounds of the advertorial ethics.
Something they are concerned about is brands seeing influencers as something other than “just numbers,” as Justin Livingston, founder of men’s lifestyle blog Scout Sixteen, said.
“It’s really frustrating when someone sanitizes your content to the point where it’s just like, [a brand] could have just sent me one of their commercials and had me post that because I’m not even in it,” Livingston said.
Livingston has 277,000 followers on Instagram, and like Sturino, his fashion-heavy feed is nearly devoid of disclosures beyond tags of the brands he’s wearing, where he’s eating and where he’s staying and the occasional “#ad,” which the FTC has called an insufficient disclosure.
Despite the popularity of brands using influencers for much of their advertising — Megan Leedy Jones of marketing agency January Digital said during another panel that budgets for influencer marketing are growing by 300 percent year-over-year — influencers are also growing tired of what they see as a lack of thought by companies when it comes to which influencers they use.
“I feel like the playing field has leveled a lot,” Livingston said. “Instead of it being like, conglomerate brand [up here] and like, oh, this little influencer that you’re throwing money at [down here], it’s like, oh, we’re on the same level.”
While companies may be taking influencers more seriously, Sturino said she hopes to start seeing more brands “stop throwing out money and care a little bit more about their collaborations and be like, ‘How do you feel about this?’ or “How does your audience feel?’”
She recalled an Instagram post Netflix paid her for to promote its movie “Okja,” which she hadn’t seen. Sturino posted something anyway using guidelines she’d been given by Netflix, but realized after seeing the movie several weeks later that the post “made zero sense.” She never heard anything from Netflix about it.
Sturino added that she was recently asked for the “first time ever” to try out a product before agreeing to promote it, but it was a dog food company considering a collaboration with her insta-famous dog Toast.
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