For the majority of brand owners, social media advertising is a must-have. Not only is this platform one of the most cost-effective ways of brand promotion, it also, almost instantaneously, reaches a large, targeted consumer base. This form of advertising is also a two-way street, in that consumers can comment on posts, tweets and the like, and receive personalised feedback from the brand owner. This tool aids in fostering customer satisfaction and increased long-term brand loyalty, whilst allowing brand owners to have insights into consumer likes, dislikes and needs.

Following in the footsteps of other countries, the South African Advertising Regulatory Board (“ARB”) will shortly be issuing a set of local guidelines on acceptable social media marketing and advertising, including brand promotion through the use of influencers. These guidelines will form a new appendix to the ARB’s Code of Advertising Practice, which can be viewed on the website link www.arb.org.za/codes.html.

Members of the ARB, being the Interactive Advertising Bureau (www.iab.com), the Association for Communication and Advertising (www.acasa.co.za) and the Marketing Association of South Africa (www.marketingsa.co.za) are bound by the Code of Advertising Practice and will, therefore, be required to comply with the new social media guidelines. In addition, it is presumed that all businesses or organisations that are members of these three bodies, also have an obligation to comply with the Code, and to abide by ARB rulings on advertising disputes.

As a starting point, going forward, brand owners will need to ensure that consumers can clearly identify paid-for social media advertising. This requirement ties in with Clause 12 of Section II of the current Code, which highlights that, in electronic media, particular care should be taken to distinguish clearly between programme content on the one hand, and advertising on the other. When paid-for promotional content is displayed amongst news or other editorial matter (often referred to as “native advertising”), that content should be designed, produced and presented in a manner that it will be readily and clearly recognised as an advertisement by the relevant public.

Where influencers (including celebrities or sports stars who often have huge fan bases on social media platforms) are involved, care should be taken to avoid any ambiguity regarding posts or tweets by such individuals relating to specific brands. The value that consumers attach to a product or service recommendation is likely to be different, if the consumer is fully aware that the recommendation is a paid-for endorsement or review, as opposed to user-generated content, which is purely the narrator’s subjective opinion, on the specific topic, product or service.

Against this background, in instances where paid-for communication may, as a result of ambiguity in the social media content or otherwise, appear to the average consumer to be the unsolicited opinion of the influencer, the material must be clearly identified as advertising through the use of supported social media identifiers. Current recognised social media identifiers are #AD, #Advertisement and #Sponsored. The use of acceptable social media identifiers will avoid the risk of consumer confusion as to the nature of the viewed social media content.

To ensure that consumers have a full understanding of a paid-for post, the influencer should disclose, in the advert, if he or she received any goods or services in return for media coverage on the brand. In the interests of reinforcing influencer integrity, influencers are also required to declare or disclose their involvement with a specific brand or marketer in the posted or tweeted material.

Social media advertising should comply wiTH all provisions of the Code of Advertising Practice. Endorsements or testimonials in adverts, including those of influencers, should be genuine, and related to the personal experience, over a reasonable period, of the person giving it. Furthermore, care should be taken to avoid any false or misleading claims in influencer advertising, as the brand owner or influencer will not be able to defend such conduct by claiming that it was expressed as an opinion only.

Brand owners and influencers will also be required to have written agreements in place dealing with, inter alia, the nature of the engagement and the influencer’s brief, the nature of remuneration (which may include money and/or free products or services), details of social media advertising content relating to the brand, and if it will be influencer-created or scripted (in which instance the influencer should clearly disclose or credit the content creator). The agreement should also set out any mandatory warnings or statements that may be relevant to a particular industry and required in the influencer advertising (as an example, the underage statement “Not for sale to persons under the age of 18 years” should appear in all advertising for alcoholic beverages or brands).

To conclude, brand owners should take note that they will have the primary responsibility to ensure that social media advertising, including influencer advertising for their brands, complies with the relevant advertising guidelines. These guidelines are aimed at transparency in advertising, and ensuring that consumers can clearly distinguish between advertising, and other online material. In addition, for reputational and ethical reasons, influencers are also encouraged to comply with the social media guidelines, to ensure that their followers immediately understand the nature and extent of their relationship with a particular product or business brand appearing on their social media newsfeed.