Thoughts on the New CMA Guidelines

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you’re not based in the U.K), you will have heard all about the new CMA guidelines for influencers. I’ve been bombarded with posts about the new guidelines on Instagram & Twitter, and have witnessed everything from Instagrammers opening them with open arms to people just completely ignoring them. The vast majority of people (myself included) sit somewhere in the middle. I’m all for transparency when it comes to influencer marketing, but there are parts of the new rules that seem a bit too much. I’ve talked briefly about the new guidelines over on Instagram in my Stories, but I wanted to use my blog to dig deeper into the subject.

First of all, I’d just like to quickly highlight the new rules for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m going on about. These apply to anyone posting content on social media channels or their own blog in the U.K:

  • Any form of gift, services or product counts as payment.

  • Be clear about any relationship you have with a brand - even if you’ve worked with a brand previously. If you’ve purchased an item yourself but have worked with the brand within the past year, it needs to be clearly stated.

  • The disclosure of whether you have received any form of payment (including gifts or services) should be given up front and must be clear.

  • The word ‘Ad’ or ‘Advert’ must be used.

  • If you have relationships with several brands featured in the same post, they must all be clearly stated.

This all seems pretty straight forward, right? If you’re consuming online content, you want to know when you’re being advertised to and I completely agree. It always irritates me when I see other influencers posting about products that are blatant ads without correct disclosure. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Let’s take the first point: any form of gift, service or product now counts as payment. If you have agreed to promote an item in return for receiving it for free, this has always been the case. The only difference is that you may have previously got away with marking the post as ‘Sponsored’ or ‘Gifted’ rather than ‘Ad’. You’re now likely to see lots more ‘Ads’ on Instagram, but its important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the influencer is partaking in more sponsored work than usual.

You now have to declare a post as an ‘Ad’ even if you aren’t directly promoting a product. Say for example, I received a dress from a brand in exchange for featuring it on my Instagram. I will take photos for the brand and post them as an ‘Ad’ as the promotion was in exchange for the dress. A few months down the line, I may be wearing the dress in another photo that is related to something else entirely, but I now have to mark that post as an ‘Ad’. I then might treat myself to another garment from the same brand. If I take photos wearing the new garment (that I have paid full price for) I will have to mark those photos as ‘Ad’, because of my previous relationship with the brand.

i only ever accept gifts or work with brands that I truly love and would buy from myself, and I have a small wardrobe filled with garments that I love to wear again and again. I’m loyal to the brands that I work with and shop with, meaning that I wear the same brands over and over again. This means that you are much more likely to see ‘Ad’ on my feed, even if I have purchased a garment myself or have simply stuck my arm into a photo clad in a garment I’ve previously been gifted.

I don’t mind declaring sponsored content on my Instagram or blog. I’m proud to work with the brands that I work with, and I want to be promoting them because they are brands that I truly love. They’re usually smaller or independent brands, quite often with ethical practices, and I carefully vet all brands that I work with. I wouldn’t review a product that I didn’t like, and if I had mixed opinions about something, I would clearly state my opinions on the post. Sponsored content doesn’t mean that it is full of lies and bias. If you trust the influencer that you follow, you shouldn’t feel put off by their sponsored content. If anything, consider how much of their content is organic and isn’t sponsored - they produce all of that content for free, just because they enjoy it. Their sponsored content enables them to spend their time creating photographs, videos and writing that you can consume for free. Be pleased for them that they have forged a creative career for themselves.

However, when I posted the question ‘Does ‘Ad’ put you off from engaging with a post?’ on Instagram, 36% of people agreed. I scrolled through the names of the 64% who were not put off, and noticed that most of these people were fellow bloggers and influencers. In general, posts marked ‘Ad’ on Instagram tend to gain much less engagement than organic posts. People are put off by the word ‘Ad’ at the beginning of the caption (and it should always be at the beginning of your caption - you can go into more detail at the end, but the word AD should be the first thing that people see).

If people continue to dislike sponsored content and influencers now have to declare more posts as advertisements, will we start to see an overall decline in engagement on our feeds?

One of my Instagram friends mentioned that she’d been gifted the paint for the walls in her home. Most of her posts are of her home, as she concentrates on interiors. Does that mean that she has to put ‘Ad’ before every single photo of her home? The obvious solution here is not to tag the paint company unless the post is directly related to her walls (in which case, it would be an Ad). If people ask about the colour of her walls, she can simply tell them where the paint was from and mention that it was gifted.

But people want instant gratification on Instagram, and clicking to see the tags on an image is what we are all used to. If people stop using tags for this reason, will we start to ask more questions about where items are from - or will we simply continue scrolling. Could these new guidelines have negative implications for brands, and therefore influencer marketing? Some may say that is a good thing, but many people now rely on Instagram for their income.

I spoke to another influencer about sponsored trips, where either the flights or accommodation (or the entire trip) have been paid for. There’s a few different way in which this could work - it could be a press trip where everything is paid for & the influencer has also been paid, or it could be a free stay in a hotel. The person I spoke to was worried that it could seem like they were constantly jetting off on free holidays, when in fact they turn down more collaborations than they accept and only travel to places that they truly want to visit. Most of the time, only a couple of nights are given for free and the rest of the trip is self-funded. Yet under the new rules, even the self-funded parts of the trip would have to be disclosed as advertisements - or if they ever returned to the same place but paid for the trip themselves.

There are a lot of grey lines here. Especially when it comes to Stories. I’ve already noticed people mentioning a trip is sponsored in a story and then posting freely for the remainder of their stay - but if you don’t notice that first story, you’ve missed the declaration. Every single post and story needs to be marked as ‘Ad’ - as annoying as it seems.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about the guidelines, but it’s important that people realise that they will have implications. Its nice to see gifted items now being declared, and hopefully some of the shadier sides of Instagram will now be held up for everyone to see. No more miracle diet drinks that have never passed the lips of influencers! But there will be downsides to these new rules for the people whose content you absorb for free.

For those of you who are gleeful rubbing your hands together and refusing to double-click on anything marked as an ‘Ad’, I ask you to pick up a copy of any magazine and give it a flick through. How many ‘AD’ notifications do you see on the pages? The double standards here are shocking; magazine journalists and editors are constantly given freebies (be that product or trips, dependent on their specialism) and very rarely declare it on the pages. That two-page spread about a stay in a luxurious spa in the Maldives is almost definitely an advert, due to the journalist receiving a complimentary stay. Yet magazines don’t need to ensure that their readers see the word AD before they consume their content.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do advertisements on social media and blogs annoy you? What if they look organic, are labelled correctly and fit into the influencer’s content perfectly? As an example, I’d like to point out my most recent sponsored post. To me, this post fits seamlessly in my feed. The content (reading a book in the woods) complements the rest of my feed and I wouldn’t be offended if I saw similar on another person’s feed. Yet this post has the lowest engagement of any of my recent posts, something that I put down to that little word ‘Ad’ at the beginning of the caption. I wasn’t paid for this post, rather I was sent an advance copy of a friend's book (a book, I would like to add, that I had already pre-ordered myself and would have posted about regardless). That tiny word has immediately put people off from engaging with it.

Perhaps, the issue doesn’t lie with the guidelines themselves, but with our own attitudes towards sponsored content?