Underused, redundant and dated: is the #ad rule still necessary?

ASA chief executive Hilary Souter says she is yet to receive a complaint from Kiwis about advertisers not using #ad to specify promotional social media posts.

But this does not imply that brands—and those who endorse their products—are sticking to the straight and narrow by religiously disclosing all commercial posts. 

Just last month, All Black Dan Carter used his Twitter account to point fans to a campaign Mastercard had produced as part of its sponsorship deal with him. And while the ad featured two references to Mastercard’s ‘priceless’ positioning, #ad was nowhere to be seen. 

This problem doesn’t apply when it comes to ads served through the programmatic networks of any of the major social media services.

As Twitter’s international revenue manager Oliver Wilton says: “On Twitter, promoted tweets are clearly labelled as ‘Promoted’ when an advertiser is paying for their placement on Twitter. Twitter’s ad policy and terms of service require advertisers and users to follow all applicable local laws and regulations, create honest ads, and advertise safely and respectfully.”

Due to these measures, the disclosure issue really only comes into play with endorsed posts from celebrities or so-called influencers. 

The ASA’s rules require that “advertisements should be clearly distinguishable as such, whatever their form and whatever the medium used.”

With magazines, TV and radio, this rule had been applied for some time, but when social media exploded onto the scene, it was a new medium and the ASA had no best-practice precedents to lean on.  

So, to extend this guideline to social media, the ASA developed the #ad rule.

ANZA chief executive Lindsay Mouat says this social media rule was first established in the UK in 2012, following a ruling against Nike in terms of its endorsement deals with football players.

The local arm of the ASA later also adopted this rule to afford New Zealanders the same protection, and the ASA code now features a clause saying: “If using paid-for Twitter endorsements – the hashtag #ad is required.”  

However, at best, this rule has been sporadically applied; and, at worst, it has been blatantly ignored. 

“I still see a lot of brands playing very fast and loose with the rules that are in place, and perhaps that is a good case for those rules being more clearly defined and then enforced,” says Colenso BBDO head of digital planning Neville Doyle. 

“As with native advertising, we need to be careful as to how we talk to consumers – that we are transparent in our dealings with them. Any time an influencer works with a brand, it is supposed to be clearly labelled as such and yet it is something that is rarely the case.”

Doyle’s call for the rules to be more clearly defined does make sense, especially given that the online context has changed significantly since #ad was first introduced. 

Mouat goes one step further, saying that the rule has become dated: 

“Is it relevant four years on? I’m not so sure, in part because of our increasing comfort with brand content online.”

Mouat says the evolution of online media has seen Kiwis develop a relatively keen sense for identifying paid endorsement and calling it out when it crosses the line. 

“Social, more than other media, provides an immediate opportunity to directly call out brand content in any form,” says Mouat. “That explains, in part, why the ASA gets relatively few complaints about advertising in social channels. As responsive as the ASA complaints system is, it can’t compete with the immediacy of a comment on Facebook or Twitter and the public are willing to comment immediately and vociferously.”

And in much the same way that consumers take to brand Facebook pages and Twitter accounts when frustrated with a service or a product, those active on Twitter find the response time is shorter when airing their opinions directly underneath an offending post. 

This was even evident under the Dan Carter post, with one user asking: “You’re not being sponsored for this by any chance?”

Yesterday, at the CAANZ Speaker Series event, The Spinoff editor Duncan Greive said there was a significant amount of community policing happening in the online space. When the community is of the opinion that a post is deceitful, they will call it out, he said.

Greive also said the community has come to appreciate that famous people will use their social channels to spread commercial messages for their sponsors.

This does not suggest that brands should jettison disclosure entirely. 

At the recent StopPress Presents event on digital video, Lance Traore, the managing director for Unruly across New Zealand and Australia, suggested that brands should disclose when something is an ad, because the social media community doesn’t like to feel tricked.

He said that viewers are far more likely to be turned off from branded content by deceit than by a banner that discloses sponsorship—and this is particularly relevant in a medium that trades on authenticity.

And while social media audiences aren’t necessarily taking the laborious step of lodging a complaint with the ASA, it would probably be in a brand’s best interest not to try slip an ad through in the hope that no one will notice.

Because as Kiwibank marketing and comms manager Regan Savage recently said: “​The public can see inauthentic content for what it is. We’re all media savvy, and the emerging demographic of consumers are particularly so. They’ve got a good nose for bullshit.”          

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