A U.K. self-regulatory group said social media ads can be tricky to spot.

When navigating influencers’ social media content, consumers have trouble telling regular posts from sponsored ads, a self-regulatory group in the U.K. has found.

In a new report Thursday, the Advertising Standards Authority said that influencer and advertising posts promoting products or brands must at the very least use the label “ad.” Brands in the U.K. are already legally required to label such posts clearly under legislation there that governs advertising materials, namely the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations.   

“The research tells us that all of us can find it hard to identify when an influencer is advertising, so it’s crucial that ads are labeled clearly,” ASA’s chief executive Guy Parker said in a statement. 

“Our message to influencers and brands couldn’t be clearer: Be upfront with followers, for example by using #ad,” he said.  

The ASA is an industry-funded group that oversees advertising standards in the U.K., where advertising content is regulated through a combination of industry self-regulation, legislation, as well as oversight by government departments including the Competition and Markets Authority. 

For this report, the ASA had the research agency Ipsos MORI study how consumers perceive influencers’ online posts. The study included an online survey of 1,600 adults and about 300 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.  

The consumer participants, most of whom had indicated in the survey that they looked at social media daily, were split into different categories and shown the same posts but with different accompanying labeling. The study found that most users were unable to tell for sure that a post was “definitely an ad” even when the post contained the ad or advert hashtags.  

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The ASA highlighted the significance of its findings in the context of how online advertising works now. Brands use various tactics to get their products before an audience on social media channels, which lack the editorial gatekeeping of traditional publishers, the group said. And brands may either have explicit contracts with influencers to pay them in exchange for posts about products, or simply send free products to owners of popular accounts, aiming for a shoutout, the group said. 

“Where an influencer is posting about a brand because they’ve been paid to do so (either in money or ‘in kind,’ e.g., with free goods), the post must be obviously identifiable as an ad,” the ASA said.  

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Although the ASA isn’t a government agency, its findings and rules carry weight in setting advertising standards in the U.K. Earlier this summer, the group said that online influencers could be considered celebrities, particularly in the context of advertising that involves medicines and beauty products. It found that to be the case even in an instance it looked at where the influencer who had posted an ad for a medicine had about 30,000 followers on Instagram.  

The ASA’s sister organization, the Committee of Advertising Practice, has also issued advertising rules, including a ban on “harmful gender stereotypes in ads,” which went into effect in June.

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