New rules on ad transparency are welcome but woolly

Years after concerns were raised about the blurring lines between advertising and content, the AANA has finally released best practice guidelines. But Simon Canning asks are they clear enough and will the emerging world of influencers even care?

The Australian Association of National Advertisers has finally set rules distinguishing advertising, paid plugs and product placement from other content – but what has emerged is a two-tiered system that will crack down on the rise of influencers but leave the traditional mediums of TV print and radio relatively untouched.

ad-guidelineWhile the new guidelines will be welcomed as a step in the right direction, the AANA has introduced a woolly system widely open to interpretation, creating a potential recipe for confusion amongst advertisers and confusion amongst consumers.

For instance, the guidelines state that despite their introduction: “There is no absolute requirement that advertising or marketing communication must have a label”.

In attempting to address growing community concerns over the rise of stealth marketing, what the AANA has unveiled is a two-tiered system that is quite prescriptive about how bloggers, influencers and other users of emerging channels should identify advertising, and a much looser set of guidelines for TV, print and radio.

It has taken the AANA nearly five years to address the issue after it was first raised in the mainstream media by the ABC’s Media Watch when the South Australian Tourism Commission was carpeted for paying celebrities to tweet about Kangaroo Island.

Matt Moran's tweet about Let Yourself Go

Where influencers using channels such as Twitter and Instagram have benefited from payment or free products in exchange for commenting, the AANA says they could disclose the arrangement, possibly by using the hashtag “#ad” in cases where the advertiser “retains control over the content”.

However, an area unaddressed in the guidelines is where a celebrity is paid to retweet somebody else’s post.

Meanwhile, the approach for products placed on TV is much softer, with the AANA saying that examples such as where contestants on shows such as MKR and Masterchef using branded products do not have to highlight that money has changed hands because audiences don’t mind.

Even though consumers may not realise the advertisers have made a commercial arrangement for their products to appear, the use of the branded products is sufficient to distinguish the material as an advertisement or marketing communication. Further disclosure of product placement may not necessary. There is a prevailing community view that audiences do not need to be notified of this sort of product placement.

Throughout the 18 examples given in the guidelines the AANA largely avoids pinning down the need for advertisers to disclose their involvement in any significantly overt manner and leaves the approach open to interpretation.

Importantly, unlike the UK where the appearance of products in a paid or in-kind segment on a show must be accompanied by an on-screen logo, there is no absolute requirement in the Australian guidelines.

Where native content is published there is no absolute requirement it be labeled, even if the sponsor logo was alongside the content but the content itself did not overtly promote the brand’s products – even if it paid for the creation of the content.

Some websites such as the SMH are already identifying ad content

Some websites such as the SMH are already identifying ad content

Adding to the confusion of the guidelines is the description that ads must be distinguishable to a “relevant audience”, with the AANA saying the level of disclosure may change based on the audience – such as gamers exposed to advertising in video games or children exposed to marketing in a game show paid for by a toy maker.

The new guidelines will be policed by the Advertising Standards Bureau under the AANA Code of Ethics new clause 2.7.

As welcome as the new guidelines might be, it is hard not to see confusion reigning as consumers become aware of their right to complain and the ASB attempting to make sense of the new rules based on such woolly wording.

In all but a couple of examples the guidance provided by AANA does not require the clear identification of advertising content but notes marketers and media platforms should “take care”.

And in the wild west that is the emerging world of influencer marketing, just how willing will some brands and their influencers be to adhere to a ruling?

Man of Many Tastes Twitter feed: editorial or advertising?

Man of Many Tastes Twitter feed: editorial or advertising? The website highlights advertising content and already uses the #ad hashtag.

Like Windsor Smith in the early days of the ASB and, more recently, Wicked Campers, which simply ignores ASB rulings, will brands not a part of the AANA membership group simply thumb their noses at rulings?

Far from being definitive, what the AANA has presented looks more like a work in progress and one that looks likely to fuel the debate, not settle it.

As the new guidelines highlight time and again, “care should be taken” not to camouflage advertising. But the new policy looks more like all care and no responsibility.


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