An open letter to Instagram and everyone on it.

Disclaimer: I have no proof that the Instagram accounts shown in the photos below were paid to post about a particular brand. I am making assumptions based off of the frequency that they tag those brands and off of my own instincts. I am also by no means trying to put down the people who run those accounts or the companies that they have tagged. I simply want everyone to be more aware and transparent with their followers.

I’m really tired of Instagrammers posting blatantly sponsored content without saying so. Scroll through the “explore” section of your Instagram and I can almost guarantee you’ll see this happening:

It’s time to make a change. If a company is paying someone to influence me then I need to be aware of it. I know I’m being advertised to when I see a billboard. I know I’m being advertised to when I see a commercial. I know I’m being advertised to when I see a banner on the side of a web page. But I rarely know when I’m being advertised to on Instagram.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that if you love a companies products and you want others to know about how great they are then you shouldn’t tag that company and talk them up. That’s awesome! I work in advertising—earned media (that’s jargon for digital word-of-mouth) is our holy grail! And it should be! If a company creates products or content that people love so much that they can’t help but share it, they deserve to be recognized! That’s not at all what bothers me.

What bothers me is that there are thousands of companies out there that are paying popular Instagrammers to post about their products and to tag the company’s account. And they’re doing so without requiring that person to tell their followers that they were paid to do so.

That is bullshit. Deceptive, maniacal bullshit.

How am I supposed to tell the difference between a person who is unbiased and truly enjoys a product for it’s quality and the experience it provides from a biased person who got popular posting photos of half naked women holding succulents over their nipples and is now getting paid to (possibly) pretend to like the product? I can’t! I can’t tell the difference! Well actually I usually can, but there’s never any guarantee that I’m correct.

The worst part is that I bet a lot of the companies doing this are producing fantastic products. Products that I would probably buy if I saw someone on Instagram talking about how comfortable it was or how it made their life easier. I love finding out about products through my friends or through Instagrammers I admire. But when no one is deciphering between paid and earned media, I have no way to know if anyone is telling the truth!

That’s where #sponsored comes in.

Companies: If you pay, give free product, or influence someone in any way to post about or to talk highly of your products, services, or content then you need to require them to make it clear to their friends and followers that you did so. A simple hashtag is all I ask for. #sponsored, #paid, or #ad all work just fine. Just make it clear that this person is now biased.

Instagrammers: If you are paid, given free product, or influenced in any way to post about or to talk highly of a company’s products, services, or content then you need to make it clear to your friends and followers that you were paid to do so. Like I said before, a simple hashtag is all I ask for. #sponsored, #paid, or #ad all work just fine. Just make it clear that you are now biased.

Instagram: Change your policies to require these hashtags for sponsored content (this is different than the sponsored content that companies pay you for) and add the ability to report users and companies who disobey those policies.

I was recently approached by Skullcandy and asked to join their Skullcandy Locals program. The Locals program is a collection of photographers and action sports athletes that live the #stayloud mentality that Skullcandy embodies with their products and content. They provide me with products to enjoy and in return I provide them with photo content of those products. It’s a really enjoyable, mutual relationship to have with a brand.

The first post I made after becoming a Local outlined to everyone who follows me that I plan on only telling the truth about the products that I post about. If I get some earbuds that fall apart in a few days then I will say so. But if I get some wireless headphones that I truly love using then I’m going to tell everyone else how great they are. I also made it clear that all of my posts about Skullcandy will be accompanied by #sponsored so that people can decide for themselves whether or not they think I am biased. I mean, I am biased! Anyone receiving free shit from a company and then talking about it is biased purely because they didn’t spend their own money on it. They’re telling other people to pay money for a product that they got for free.

I’d really love to be able to scroll through my feed and easily discern between the people who are biased or not biased. I’m a huge gear nerd. If Filson comes out with a new wool jacket, I’d love to know about it! Or if Urban Outfitters starts carrying a really beautiful new coffee table book, show me!

But make damn sure that you’re allowing me to decide for myself whether or not I am being advertised to. Give me the opportunity to be aware of a possibly biased review. And most importantly, allow me to be able to discern between the people that you did and did not pay to talk about your products because I am always more likely to buy something after seeing a person who is so genuinely happy about a product or experience that they just had to tell the world about it.

It’s sad that Instagrammers and companies either aren’t aware they are being deceitful, or are aware and are consciously choosing to be. So until the day comes when every company and Instagrammer is being genuine and truthful, I’ll just have to keep doing this. I encourage you to do the same:

P.s. Skullcandy did not pay me to write this.