Yes, it’s yet another post about the ‘new’ ASA influencer guidelines – sorry, folks.
Don’t worry, though: I’m not going to even attempt to explain the guidelines to you (You can read them for yourself here, if you haven’t already), or even to tell you what I think of them – mostly because the fabulous Catherine at Not Dressed as Lamb has done a pretty awesome job of that already, and you can read her post on it here. It’s OK, I’ll wait…
Like many of my fellow bloggers/influencers, I have a few problems with some of these guidelines, and, despite having read them a couple of times now, there are still parts I’m not 100% clear on. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Because, while I understand the confusion they’ve generated, I actually think these rules could be a really good thing for bloggers – and, indeed, influencers, which I guess is what we’re calling ourselves now, as cringey as it sounds.
The fact is, I’ve been saying for years now that the industry (By which I mean blogging, Instagram, and anything else that falls under the “influencer” umbrella) has been desperately in need of regulation of some kind. Because it’s a mess. A big, hot, messy mess – and it’s only getting messier.
Why is the blogging industry in such a mess, though?
The answer to this question lies in the fact that these “new” ASA guidelines everyone’s been banging on about lately aren’t actually “new” at all. No, those rules came into force back in September 2018 – it’s just that, until now, not many people were even aware of them. And why would they be, after all? It’s not like everyone with an Instagram account was sent a memo, so unless you’re in the habit of checking the ASA website every so often, it would’ve been pretty easy to miss, really. And so, even although there have been rules and guidelines relating to online publishing – which is what blogging is – since long before this most recent update, the problem is that not everyone who starts a blog, or opens an Instagram account is aware of them – and therein lies the problem.
Blogging and social media, you see, straddle a very thin line between the personal and the public, between “hobby” and “job”. You can see how that could get confusing, can’t you? Not everyone who starts a blog /Instagram does so with the intention of making money from it or becoming an “influencer”, either: so some people make money, or get other benefits – which I’ll get to soon – from the content they post online, while others don’t. There are virtually no barriers to entry: literally anyone with a smartphone can start an Instagram account or blog – and so we end up with this odd situation where activities that were previously only really undertaken by journalists or photographers, are now being done by… well, just about everyone, really.
That’s not a criticism, by the way: quite the contrary, in fact, because it was the fact that bloggers and influencers WEREN’T necessarily professionals that made the content they produced such a refreshing change from the magazines and websites which, until social media took off, had previously been our main source of entertainment, inspiration and advice. So, it’s not a bad thing that influencers are, by and large, “ordinary” people who one day decided to start documenting their lives online: it can, however, be a somewhat problematic thing when those people start to be approached by brands, with offers of “gifts”, freebies and even cold, hard cash, all in exchange for a quick Instagram post or blog mention.
I think there’s a tendency for people, when talking about this issue, to always want to ascribe malicious intent towards the influencers who’ve accepted those items, and not always made it clear where they came from – to assume that there’s some Machiavellian intention to “scam” their followers by straight-up lying and deceiving them. While it’s easy to see where that impression comes from, though (And I’m not saying it isn’t true in some cases: there are bad apples in every bunch, obviously…), I think it can often just come down to lack of awareness, or plain old confusion, really. Ignorance isn’t an excuse : it, is, however, an explanation, and I think Instagram in particular is quite a unique case here, because of the way it combines the personal and the professional, to a degree that can become really confusing for people.
On my own account, for instance, there are photos I was paid to post, right next to ones I uploaded for no other reason than that I liked them. I wear clothes in my photos that are often a few years old now: some of them were originally given to me by brands, but if the clothes aren’t the focus of the photo (If, for instance, it’s a photo of Max and I on holiday, and I happen to be wearing a pair of shoes I was given as part of a brand campaign three years ago, say…), it probably won’t occur to me to say, “By the way, everyone, I got my shoes for free.” That’s not because I’m some kind of evil, calculating scam artist who wants to fleece every last penny out of my followers: it’s just because when I upload that photo, I’m probably not thinking about my shoes – to honest, I might not even remember when/how I got them. And that’s just one example, obviously: multiply that by all of the bloggers and influencers who work with brands in some way, and by all of the photos and posts they’ve uploaded, and WOW, no wonder followers are confused.
And this is why, even although I don’t agree with all of the “new” rules, I still welcome them. We need this. We need some kind of framework to work under: we need regulation, and guidelines, and we need to start to make sure that everyone understands their obligations to their followers when posting content online. I don’t think many people would disagree with the need for transparency – for a long time, now, though, there has been a lot of disagreement about how influencers should go about achieving that, by disclosing their relationships with brands. There are too many loopholes which allow people to be vague about disclosure, and too much confusion about what even NEEDS to be disclosed, and how. And this is a huge, huge problem, because, as things stand, the impression I have is that there are a lot of influencers out there who don’t really consider what they’re doing to be “advertising”.
Brands don’t describe it that way, after all. When brands approach me, they don’t say, “Hey, Amber, we’d like you to create an advert for our brand, so that we can make money from your followers and your work.” No, they use words like, “opportunity”, “gift” and “collaboration” – all of which sound innocuous, and even fun. Like, YAY, I’m not just going to do a full day’s working creating an advert to make money for a multinational corporation – no, I’ve been CHOSEN to COLLABORATE with them and they’re going to send me a FREE GIFT! WOWOWOW!
And, I mean, that sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Seriously, who would be stupid enough to be taken in by that?
*sheepishly raises hand*
Now, my background is in journalism, so I’ve even less of an excuse to be taken in here, but I have to confess that, back when I started blogging, I’d frequently have my head turned by brands offering “gifts” in exchange for coverage. I was flattered by it, and it wasn’t until I’d spent a lot of time and effort creating blog posts about these products that the penny finally dropped, and I realised that, actually, I was being taken advantage of. Those brands weren’t sending me “gifts” just because they genuinely thought my hair was “soooo gorgeous!” They were doing it because I had X thousand people reading my blog, and sending me a bottle of shampoo was a much cheaper way to reach those people than paying for conventional adverting.
But it WAS still advertising.
And, honestly, if these new rules help people understand that – both influencers and brands – then I’m all for it.
The rules are flawed and imperfect, don’t get me wrong. But I’m hoping that the fact that so-called “gifts” exchanged for content will now have to be clearly labelled as adverts will help bring about something of a change in this strange, chaotic industry of ours. I hope will help influencers realise that there ARE no “gifts” in this industry (Or not many, anyway…), and that what they’re doing IS, in fact, advertising. I hope that understanding will make influencers more selective about what they accept and who they work with: that we’ll start to see fewer people being willing to work in exchange for a lipstick, or a bottle or shampoo, say (And, again, no judgement implied: we’ve all been there…) and insisting instead on being fairly compensated for the time and effort that goes into the content they create, which often benefits no one but the multinational brand who could well afford to pay for it.
Moreover, I hope new bloggers and influencers will realise that it’s no longer the Wild West out there: that there are rules, and consequences, and that you can’t just make it up as you go along any more. I hope the fact that there ARE rules and guildelines will make people take the industry a bit more seriously – both influencers and the brands who work with them.
I mean, I HOPE that’s what will happen, anyway. The fact that I woke up this morning to two separate messages from brands asking me to create adverts for them, but telling me they had no budget to pay me for it, (But I would get a GIFT! A FREE GIFT!) suggests that we’re probably still a long way from perfect with this one, but hey. On the other hand, we’re already starting to see influencers disclosing relationships more clearly, and making changes to the way they run their accounts. It’s not perfect – I mean, it’s a very, very long way from perfect. But it’s a start.
And we have to start somewhere, right?