Written evidence submitted by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising
IPA Response to DCMS Committee Inquiry into
The IPA is the professional body for advertising, media and marketing communications agencies based in the United Kingdom. We have approximately 300 agency brands within our membership.
As a membership body incorporated by Royal Charter, the IPA’s role is two-fold: (i) to provide essential core support services to our corporate members who are key players in the industry; and (ii) to act as our members’ spokesperson.
Advertising is fundamental to the UK economy. It plays a crucial role in brand competition, drives product innovation and fuels economic growth. It also provides revenues to fund a diverse and pluralistic media, enjoyed by all.
Every pound spent on advertising returns £6 to GDP, supporting 1 million jobs across the UK.
We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry.
How would you define 'influencers' and ‘influencer culture'? Is this a new phenomenon?
According to WARC’s ‘What we know about influencer marketing’ report, “An influencer is an individual who has above-average reach or impact through word-of-mouth or social marketing. Influencers are often highly knowledgeable about a specific subject such as food, fashion, beauty or technology.” 
In the advertising industry, some consider an influencer to be anyone with a social media following of over 1,000 followers. Many brands prefer to work with ‘micro-influencers’ who may have as few as 5,000 or 10,000 followers, because they tend to have high engagement rates and great authenticity.
Influencers are not a new phenomenon: there have always been people able to influence others and generate a following. Online influencers, however – as we know them now - first appeared with the advent of social media platforms, using those platforms to publish content of interest to their target audiences and enabling those audiences to view that content easily and for free. Their rise coincided with the democratisation of media, where anyone with something to say has easy access to do so, publicly.
The role of the influencer is still evolving, however.
Has 'influencing' impacted popular culture? If so, how has society and/or culture changed because of this side of social media?
As the creation and publishing of content has become easier with improvements in technology, so more people have been able to become influencers. Traditional media outlets, such as terrestrial television channels or newspapers, now compete with anybody who wishes to give an opinion publicly. It is, however, extremely difficult for an online influencer to build a following.
The increase in influencers has undoubtedly had an impact on popular culture. Viewers have far more choice as to the content they consume and by which channels they consume it. No longer are they restricted to traditional channels and the content those channels provide. This democratisation of media means that there is now a limitless supply of popular content to consume, created by a limitless number of influencers.
Some influencers with large numbers of followers have gradually become mainstream, evolving into celebrities in their own right. Some even appear on traditional media channels, including television, boosting the ratings of the shows on which they appear as well as increasing their online followings. Examples include Joe Sugg and Saffron Barker, both of whom appeared on the television show, Strictly Come Dancing in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Several other popular television shows have also featured online influencers. The appearance of online influencers on television also drives people more used to traditional media, to try alternatives. It works the other way, too, with celebrities created through traditional media channels using their fame to become influencers and gaining a following on social media. Examples include such diverse talent as Love Island contestants and the chef, Gordon Ramsey. The government has also acknowledged the reach of influencers, confirming that it paid several, including Love Island contestants, to promote the NHS Test and Trace initiative.
Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles to [sic] influencers fulfil online?
As noted above, the term ‘influencer’ has a broad meaning that is constantly evolving. It would include anyone who creates content that their followers wish to consume. We would argue that it is not right to predominantly associate influencers with advertising and consumerism, although that negative depiction is one that seems to have cemented itself with mainstream media. Influencers include all manner of people commenting on all manner of issues, from astrophysicists, photographers and personal trainers to music producers and make-up artists. Influencers and the topics on which they comment are as multi-faceted as people’s interests. They include anyone who commands the interest of others, from Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, to Marcus Rashford, the footballer and children’s rights campaigner.
Influencers often provide informative, educational content through their social media channels, which consumers receive for free. They also enable those with niche interests or who might otherwise feel excluded from more mainstream pursuits, to feel part of a community. Some are able to support their content through an ad-funded commercial model, which is no different to traditional media, such as feature films, newspapers or commercial television, relying on advertising income to partly, or wholly, fund their operations.
Certainly, influencers are very much part of the advertising landscape. Products they promote range from fashion and make-up, to FMCG, to cleaning products, to books, to specialist equipment. Accordingly, advertisers are able to reach consumers through specific influencers by virtue of the influencer’s particular niche. This is because the influencer’s followers are more likely to have an interest in the advertised product.
An association between influencers and consumerism is also unsurprising given that that some influencers do focus on very popular products such as clothing and footwear. That in itself can bring publicity and an association with consumerism, as can criticism from regulators for failure to comply with the advertising rules.
The portrayal of influencers by mainstream media may suggest a predominant association with advertising and consumerism, but we do not believe that is representative of the majority. Advertising and consumerism are part of the influencer ecosystem, but they do not define it.
How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
From an advertising/marketing perspective, tech companies are encouraging and propelling the act of influencing and the ways in which influencers’ honest reviews can be directly translated into sales. For example, Instagram has a feature that allows the user to "swipe up" on a story, taking them from the content they are viewing to a brand page, enabling them to “buy now”. Features such as this enhance the online shopping experience, making it easier for users to purchase products that they see their favourite influencers promoting.
How aware are users of the arrangements between influencers and advertisers? Should policymakers, tech companies and influencers and advertisers themselves do more to ensure these arrangements are transparent?
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regulates advertising in the UK. The Committee of Advertising Practice writes the industry’s advertising codes. Its Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct and Promotional Marketing (CAP Code), which applies to all non-broadcast media, including online, contains rules on the transparency of advertising content. Rule 2 provides:
2.1 Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such.
2.3 Marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer or for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession; marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if that is not obvious from the context.
2.4 Marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications; for example, by heading them "advertisement feature".
The Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 (CPRs) prohibit unfair commercial practices, including advertising. In particular, Schedule 1 of the CPRs sets out a list of commercial practices that are in all circumstances considered unfair. These include:
11. 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).
22. 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.
The obligation to ensure the transparency of advertising is, therefore, included in both the self-regulatory CAP Code, and in law. Whether users understand the arrangements between influencers and advertisers of course depends on the nature of the advertising content. The ASA has done much to raise awareness among influencers on the need to ensure that any advertising content they publish is obviously identifiable, including the use of #ad (or similar), where necessary. CAP has published several pieces of guidance for influencers, including a ‘Cheat Sheet’ and guidance notes in conjunction with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA has also published a blog to help influencers understand the legal position and the CMA’s role, and its own guide for influencers on social media endorsements.
Tech companies have also created their own commercial notification features, such as Instagram’s ‘Paid Partnership’.
However, in September last year, the ASA undertook a three week monitoring exercise which reviewed over 24,000 individual ‘Stories’, posts, IGTV and Reels across the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers. The purpose of the exercise was to assess whether advertising content was being properly disclosed in accordance with the advertising rules. The project focused on Instagram because of the number of complaints brought to the ASA based on that platform. The exercise revealed a ‘disappointing’ overall rate of compliance. The ASA wrote to those influencers it monitored, and to brands who featured in undisclosed ads, with the threat of enforcement action for non-compliance in the future.
We believe that those in the industry, including not just the regulators, but tech companies, advertisers (and their agencies) and talent agents/PR companies working with influencers, should all help to educate influencers on the importance of transparent, commercial messaging. Many are young and inexperienced in business, with little understanding of advertising regulation. They need guidance to help them understand the importance of transparent commercial messaging, whilst being allowed to build their followings and their businesses. This form of advertising is new, exciting and vibrant. It should be supported.
Influencers publishing advertising content online are subject to the same rules as apply to other non-broadcast media (the CAP Code and the CPRs). Both the ASA and the CMA take a strict approach to influencer marketing, insisting on the use of clear labelling, such as ‘#ad’ (or similar), even for content that one might not ordinarily consider an advertisement but where there is some form of commercial relationship between influencer and brand. The ASA has, for example, discouraged use of labels such as ‘Gifted’ and ‘Supported by’, which it considers unclear. And for some channels, the relevant platform’s own compliance features must also be used, even where they include labelling that may be different to that required by the regulators. Although consistency and clarity would help, we believe that due to the work of the ASA and CMA, awareness among influencers of the need for transparency around commercial messaging is growing.
It is also important, of course, that users of social media, particularly young people, understand the commercial messages that they might see online. The IPA is a supporter of MediaSmart, a not-for-profit media literacy initiative “designed to provide 7 – 16 year olds with the understanding and tools they need to be critical consumers of the media, looking at important subjects like social media and digital advertising, influencer marketing and body image.”
MediaSmart’s core role is to help educate children about commercial messaging. Their latest resource aims to help children understand the commercial link between social influencers and the brands they may be promoting. It includes popular youth influencers who feature in a film-based PSHE teaching resource for 11-14 year olds, which explains what influencer marketing is, why brands use it and how it is regulated.
Many influencers involved in marketing are young entrepreneurs, inexperienced in commercial matters, but trying to build a following and a career. Their creativity and growth should be encouraged, to help their development and the businesses and causes they support. Others simply enjoy publishing content and connecting with people/an audience, rather than deliberately trying to build a following. With their skills and creativity, they have become accidentally popular, or popular as a by-product of creating and sharing their content.
It is important, though, to continue efforts to raise awareness among all influencers of the advertising rules in order that consumers of their content are protected.
 WARC Best Practice, July 2020 - https://www.warc.com/content/paywall/article/bestprac/what-we-know-about-influencer-marketing/133126
10 The IPA has a set of standard terms for agencies to use when hiring influencers, which obliges the influencer to ensure that their commercial posts are obviously identifiable and clearly labelled.