1. So paid blogging is perfectly OK?
Bloggers are allowed to blog for money. And you (or your PR agency) can pay them to write something positive about your product or service. But under the UK Advertising Standards Authority Committee of Advertising Practice Non-Broadcast Code the blogger will need to disclose the fact that the content is a marketing communication by using an indication such as “ad”, “sponsored content” etc. This is the same as for marketing communications in any other medium.
A blogger agreeing to promote a certain opinion is not quite the same as “native advertising” or an “advertorial” but the principles are similar in that there is (i) payment (or other arrangement, e.g. barter, payment in kind) and (ii) a giving up by the writer of editorial independence, and readers need to be made aware of this.
Certain activities may also breach The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (“the CPRs”) which specifically prohibit “Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer (advertorial)”
2. What if I pay a blogger’s expenses but the blogger is free to write their own opinion?
This is OK – the point is whether the blogger is paid to write the positive review. Freebies or jollys may be fine if you truly don’t influence or control the content of any article that emerges.
3. What if I send free product samples to the blogger hoping for a positive review?
The same applies – not a problem if they are free to give their honest opinion. What you can’t do is pay them for their positive opinion.
4. What about celebrity social media endorsements?
This is no different – where the celebrities (or at least their official blogs or social media accounts) promote commercial products or services then these are marketing communications that need to be properly identified as such. A good example in the UK relates to tweets by footballer Wayne Rooney promoting sports manufacturer Nike: in the first case the tweets were not compliant: they did include a (new and not very well known) Nike slogan “#makeitcount” and URL but this was not sufficient to make the public aware that this was a promoted message; in a second case, by including the sponsor’s twitter handle this was sufficient even without including any formal indication such as #ad.
5. Does this apply to Twitter as well?
Yes, it applies to any public communication whether on a blog, social network or a microblog like Twitter. On Twitter the CAP’s suggestion is that the hashtags #spon or #ad are used to make the purpose obvious, as as mentioned above, this is not an absolute legal requirement and there may be other ways to indicate the sponsored nature of the post. The IAB and ISBA have also published guidelines regarding how to comply with the rules. One important consideration is that where media may be framed or embedded outside the original publication (e.g. video content) then the indication of sponsorship should appear within and not just around the item.
6. I’ve been offered positive reviews on [Amazon / Tripadvisor etc.]
Genuine user generated content is not covered by the rules. However, if a blogger or anyone falsely presents themselves as a consumer then this is not only a breach of advertising rules but may also be regarded as a deceptive practice under the CPRs which prohibit “Falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.”
7. The ASA can’t fine me so why should I take notice?
The UK Advertising Standards Authority is not able to fine or take particularly stringent enforcement action. On the other hand, in cases where advertisers don’t cooperate or repeatedly infringe the rules, the ASA has a legal backstop in that the CPRs establish criminal liability for certain matters which may carry penalties including fines and/or imprisonment.
As an example (in a case investigated by the old OFT in 2010 which would now fall under the remit of the Competition and Markets Authority) a social media agency which provided text and content for sponsored posts on a network of blogs and for Twitter was found to have failed to make sufficieint disclosures that these were paid-for promotions, with the result that consumers’ behaviour could be influenced, and which therefore constituted misleading omissions and unfair commercial practices under the CPRs.
Apart from this, the social media sites themselves may take action if manipulative reviews are detected – examples are the Tripadvisor red badge, removal of reviews on Amazon, or getting barred from Facebook.
8. If I just tell the blogger to do this, then this is the blogger’s responsibility, right?
The ASA will normally act against the advertiser (though the blogger might be named in any investigation) and/or any PR agency arranging or paying for the coverage.
9. I’m not in the UK – so all this doesn’t apply to me?
If non-UK bloggers target the UK then UK authorities can refer them to agencies in their home country – e.g. the FTC in the US which has its own guidelines and rules on disclosures.