The Advertising Standards Authority has published new guidance reminding bloggers that they must make it clear if they are receiving payment for writing positive reviews or comments about a product or service. The CAP Code provides that marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such. Readers must not be misled into believing they are reading opinion when in fact they are being advertised to. Similarly, the Code also states that falsely representing yourself as a consumer, when you are in fact providing an opinion which you have been paid to give, is a misleading practice.

The ASA notes that the Code applies to commercial relationships with bloggers, warning that whilst bloggers would be named as part of any ASA investigation into misleading advertising (and potentially subject to a variety of sanctions if they refuse to cooperate), it is the advertiser who would ultimately be held accountable if a paid-for blog entry was not disclosed. Whilst the ASA stresses that sending bloggers free products is perfectly legitimate, as soon as bloggers are paid to write something positive about a product or service it becomes an advertisement and the commercial relationship must be disclosed. Signposting any blog entries with “ad”, “advertorial” or “sponsored content” should be sufficient to make it clear to readers that the blog entry is in fact an advertisement.

Whilst the ASA say that it has not been inundated with complaints on the matter, the issue has an increasing presence on its agenda with misleading testimonials falling into the ‘big five’ priorities listed in its annual report published earlier this year. Recent rulings in relation to celebrity tweets promoting brands have also highlighted the issue of paid-for endorsements and the need for transparency. Clarity on the issue has primarily been sought by bloggers themselves, apparently concerned over the practices of some social media and PR agencies who, they say, offer payment in return for advertising whilst encouraging bloggers not to disclose the nature of the commercial relationship. In a community built primarily on reputation and the trust of readers, the threat of being exposed for misleading practices may be enough to make bloggers think twice about disguising paid-for advertisements as mere opinion.

The guidance does not, however, deal with what happens if a blogger solicits free products and the brand-owner sends products to the blogger without any express “products for plugs” agreement. Advertisers should approach such situations with caution and should keep in mind that such an arrangement may be interpreted as a tacit agreement.

To view the ASA guidance, please click here.