Instagram and Payola

We see over 5000 advertisements a day, many of which we are not even consciously aware of. The concepts of subliminal advertising, payola, and secret bias have been constantly brought up in controversial cases, and there is no doubt that the effect these methods of marketing have on us is immense. With the evolution and mass expansion of social media, consumers have little to no control over what types of advertisements they are exposed to, and this concept has permeated into even the content we consciously choose to view.

For those who are unfamiliar with payola, the idea is simple. Radio companies cannot take money from record companies to play or promote music that is being presented as part of a regular broadcast, and it must be specifically stated as sponsored material if the station decides to do so. The reason for this is because many awards and charts are based on the number of radio plays, and payola can unfairly increase the popularity of a song. Just like payola became the center of many court cases, subliminal advertising also became a gray area in the ethics of advertising. Where, therefore, does paid social media promotion fall?

As the amount of time people spend on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook has increased, so has the amount of money being spent on advertising on those pages. Rather than paying for ad space, brands are now paying digital influencers who have attracted a decent amount of followers to advocate for them. However, once a digital influencer contracts with a brand, the transparency rules between blogger and follower tend to become lenient. This may not seem like a big deal, but think about this: previous to the development of sponsored posts, bloggers and influencers did extensive research to find quality and honest content for their blogs. They were simply posting their views, which is what their followers wish to see. Now, companies are paying influencers to “sponsor” their brand/product in the least obvious way possible- if bloggers live in an area where they do not have to specifically disclose sponsor ship, the posts are presented as a part of normal content.

This is not to say that celebrities can’t honestly sponsor posts that they are paid for. However, the issue lies with the disclosure of sponsored posts. In the US, the FTC states that all sponsored Instagram and Facebook posts must be clearly labeled as such. In other countries, laws are lax or nonexistent, even though posts have the ability to reach international audiences.While most bloggers attempt to follow these guidelines, a significant portion of influencers (including celebrities) choose to ignore the laws.

So what if an influencer encourages her followers to buy Adidas or try out some Glade candles without specifically stating that she was being sponsored? The issue becomes more serious when we analyze the different types of content being promoted. For example, Kim Kardashian promoted Diclegis in a post, saying that it was extremely effective in helping with her pregnancy-related morning sickness. Kardashian’s post did not reveal any of the side-effects or negative consequences of the drug (you know,that super long list after a medicine ad that basically says it can kill you but it might help with your headache). In response to her post, thousands of women commented stating that they were looking for a similar medicine and that they would contact their medical providers about the medication. The FDA responded by contacting the company about the post, stating that “ it presents efficacy claims… but fails to communicate… risk… and omits material facts. These violations… suggest that DICLEGIS is safer than has been demonstrated.” The company refused to comment on their relationship with Kardashian, but these kinds of situations aren’t uncommon, especially because they can boost sales significantly and advertise without having to display all the risks. In response, Kardashian deleted her post and reposted following the proper guidelines, but she’s an influencer, and she’s already convinced tens of thousands of women on the potentially false efficacy of a drug.

The gray areas revolving around sponsored social media posts allow companies to partner with influencers to promote their products, but these partnerships become dangerous when conapes use the leniency of laws to avoid releasing harmful effects of their products. You can’t tell when a post has been sponsored or when it is a genuine endorsement, especially when companies prefer to work with content creators who are willing to hide the fact that they were paid to endorse. Sponsored posts can be beneficial for companies, influencers and followers, but it is the responsibility of influencers to be ethical when posting and the responsibility of users to be wary of the sponsored posts they see.

For further reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/fda-drug-promotion-social-media/404563/