Juice cleanses, hyped sneakers, teeth whitening kits, meal replacement regimes – all these are products you might find plugged by celebrities via Instagram, yet they are but a tip of the endorsement iceberg.
This act of social media promotion is now an everyday facet of life as an A-list celeb, but IG endorsement deals are not strictly for the über-famous. While it's been publicized that names like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid are compensated amounts up to $300,000 for an Instagram co-sign, other "influencer" accounts with as few as 10K followers are also considered prime real estate for more covert product placement.
While most of us aren't blessed with follower counts in the millions, or even in the thousands, for those accounts that meet the right criteria endorsement deals can come easily, although they're not always so easy to spot.
Legally, advertising practices in the U.S. fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, and the latest revision to the original 2009 guidelines was made in May 2015. Working as a module for how to mark sponsored content on social media, the guide is only a rough regulation, which means there are no civil penalties involved, but the FTC clearly states that if the rules are not followed then investigation will take place to show if the practice has been unfair.
Such regulation was set up to monitor street style posts, avocado toast, sneaker-flexing, and the occasional holiday snapshot, presented in a manner that might lead you to double-tap a product that wouldn't have ordinarily made it into your feed without a hefty bit of cash to back it up. Ordinarily, all sponsored content is supposed to be marked clearly as such. However, the reality is far from being so consistent.
“The only time I'd mark a post with a signifier is if the company puts in that request. I try to make the post as organic as possible,” admits prominent Canadian Instagrammer @Jayscale, speaking to us on the matter.
Let's not forget that Instagram's parent company since 2012 is Facebook, a platform with firm ordinances on how advertisements are presented. Yet, Facebook hasn't cultivated the same aspirational, lifestyle-centric culture as Instagram, meaning a placement on IG can have a lot more penetration than its big blue overseer. This grey area of faux-glamorous lifestyle porn is much harder to police on Instagram, presenting them with a real issue when it comes to controlling revenue and upholding authenticity.
In an official statement on the matter, Instagram emphasized transparency, declaring "...for paid content that is not purchased through Facebook Inc., we think transparency is important, and we mark ads that appear on Instagram as 'Sponsored.' Understanding where sponsorships or endorsement deals do or don’t exist is a complex challenge for the industry — online and off, and we are exploring what works best for our community. We encourage everyone in the Instagram community to follow industry best practices around transparency with any sponsored content."
Hinting at the future of hidden sponsored ads, the company went on to say, "We are watching the Facebook roll-out of the new branded content policy closely. We’ll look to do what’s best for the Instagram community, and at this time, the policy doesn’t transfer to Instagram. As with any reported content violation, we review all reports we receive from the Community based on Instagram’s Community Guidelines and remove content in direct violation of our listed policies."
This becomes problematic, because a lot of us genuinely discover new products through Instagram in an entirely honest fashion. Now, with many of the platform's most-followed users transforming their accounts into mannequins for promotion, brands of all shapes and sizes are falling over themselves to "seed" product to these highly visible individuals in the hopes of a shoutout. After all, the cost of one pair of sneakers (in fact, even 50 pairs of sneakers) pales in comparison to the price of genuine advertising space on a platform like IG.
While established news publications will all have a firm grasp of the fundamental rules of sharing content, Instagram personalities are often far less accountable to authority. Last year, the FDA had to step in when Kim Kardashian posted one of her many selfies, this time touting a supplement for morning sickness. Kardashian failed to disclose any side-effects of this pharmaceutical supplement, which is a clear-cut requirement upheld by the administration. The pictures in question were later removed from Instagram and Facebook and labeled as misleading. This is not the first time members of the Kardashian circle have been found guilty of blatant product placement.
Sony, Xbox, and a few other big names have also been stung by the FTC for circumventing fair marketing practices by paying Instagram users to share content under the pretense of an objective opinion. Yet, it doesn't look like a practice that is going to slow down any time soon.
After all, this distinctly modern digital marketing trend seems to be working quite well as far as the Instagram users are concerned; you receive free goods, you post about them, large numbers of likes can quickly turn into new followers, and in some cases you get paid. For the brands themselves, however, the process is a little less concrete. While an increase in likes and followers can easily be accounted for in clear sets of numbers, it's nonetheless more difficult to assess the effect such activity directly has on sales. Unless, of course, something is really successful indeed.
As a result of this rather wooly and indistinct relationship, the process behind product placement can seem a little shady and secretive. “I’ve never been offered payment upfront within the first e-mail. The weird thing is that there are never any real contracts involved, the brands just have to trust the 'bloggers' that they will actually feature their products," explains Brenda of Berlin-based @Brendahashtag.
At the end of the day, not even Instagram prescribes black and white rules for how a sponsored post is defined, although the app does have promotion guidelines listed on its site. As of now, regulations for sponsored ads are certainly more stringent in the U.S. than in the European Union.
As this form of advertisement is a relatively modern phenomenon, there's currently no proper way of filtering or unsubscribing from potential hidden advertisement, like one would perhaps do using pop-up or ad-blocking software in their internet browser. In fact, that's largely why brands love this method so much – it is both subtle and largely inescapable. Ultimately, how susceptible you are to its effects largely comes down to your own ability to identify and navigate the tactics of the modern marketing machine, where dressing "work" up as "pleasure" is the name of the game.
Exactly how long influencers will keep being able to play such a game, however, remains to be seen...