Social media is a cornerstone of modern marketing strategies. Endorsements by celebrities and non-celebrities (particularly bloggers and vloggers who are themselves becoming celebrities) are common marketing fodder and an accepted feature in every Millennial and Generation Z-er's social media life.
It is important to remember that endorsements on social media in the form of e.g. a celebrity who has been paid to talk about a slimming tea and espouse its benefits, will generally be viewed as marketing communication and therefore will be subject to the Committee of Advertising Practice's code on advertising ("CAP Code") and within the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority (the "ASA"), the UK's advertising regulator. An important rule of thumb is that endorsements must make clear that they are marketing communications rather than personal messages so as not to mislead consumers
What will be considered advertorial (as opposed to editorial) content?
Recent ASA decisions have clarified where the line should be drawn between advertorial and editorial content.
In short, there are two key markers of advertorials - payment and editorial control.
(1) Payment: where a brand pays e.g. a blogger to promote a product or service, this requirement will be met.
(2) Editorial control: this will be met where a brand e.g. writes text to go with an Instagram post ready for the endorser to share with their followers or asks a blogger to write a review of a product which is positive and/or covers specific points.
Ultimately it will be the brand who will be considered the party responsible for the marketing communication where there is payment and editorial control.
What if I give someone a free gift and ask them to review it?
A free gift could constitute payment but this won't make a review of that gift an ad provided it was gifted either without the expectation of a review or without any conditions on the content of any review. Again, it is editorial control that is key.
So how can brands make it clear that endorsements are in fact marketing communications?
The advice from the ASA hasn't been particularly clear and in recent years, many companies have used #ad or #spon in social media posts (if they use anything at all) in an attempt to make it clear to consumers that what they are reading or looking at is in fact an advertisement.
The ASA recently released guidance on best practice with regard to the labelling of advertorial (as opposed to editorial) content - see here.
The key takeaway is that #spon will no longer be suitable for use to identify advertorial content - #ad should be used instead. The reason for this that while sponsorships involve a payment, it is not typically expected that the sponsor will have editorial control. Brands will however be expected to have editorial control of advertorial content in addition to having paid the endorser. In the words of the ASA, "Ads are ads. Sponsorship is sponsorship. Labels that describe an ad as 'sponsored' are likely to break the rules in the CAP Code which require ads to be obviously identifiable."
Sponsorship arrangements, as the ASA flags in their guidance note, are still subject to consumer protection laws and the rules of the Competition and Markets Authority. What if you are using a YouTube video rather than a tweet? The ASA released guidance in 2015 on vlogging advertorials and how it can be made clear to consumers that they are marketing communications - see here.
So in summary, where a brand makes a payment to someone (which could be in the form of freebies) to make a marketing communication and the brand exerts editorial control over that communication, it must be clear to consumers that it is an advert. The easiest way to do this may well be simply to use #ad.