Within the UK, different rules apply to social media content featuring brands depending upon whether it is classified as an "ad" or as "sponsored".

In response to widespread confusion in this area, the independent authority regulating the UK's advertising industry, the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA"), has recently clarified the difference. In summary an advertorial is any "content in editorial space which is paid for by a brand and over which they exercise some degree of editorial control", whereas sponsorship has the payment element but "leaves editorial control entirely with the creator".

The importance of the distinction lies in the applicability (or non-applicability) of the UK Code of Advertising (the "CAP Code") - sponsored materials are not ads for the purposes of the CAP Code and therefore do not fall under its regulation. They will not however escape governance under competition and consumer protection laws.

Ads, on the other hand, must follow the CAP Code's requirements, and must therefore (amongst other things):

  • be clearly marked as marketing communications with a label such as "advertisement feature", "advertisement" , or "ad", so that viewers/readers/listeners are informed as to whether the material is editorial or advertorial;
  • not materially mislead (or be likely to do so); and
  • not imply that expressions of opinion are objective claims.

The ASA has confirmed that where advertorial content is concerned both the publishers and the brands behind the publishers share the responsibility for ensuring that accurate terms are used to label and describe content.