Between them, the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) and the CMA (Competition Markets Authority) have come up with new rules that all content creators need to comply with so I thought I’d run through them with you so that when you see a change in format, you’ll know why.
It’s my assumption that the people they’re really after are non-disclosing celebrities selling skinny teas and whitening toothpaste – that kind of thing but in bringing in one-set-suits-all rulings, they’ve done a huge disservice to people like me and the many other content creators that already declare and always have. Their suggestion that product samples for review purposes are tagged as #gifts implies that all of us are freebie blagging scoundrels, lying in wait to fool our readers at the soonest opportunity. The rulings don’t cover many eventualities and even if you ask those who made them, they have no answers. The beauty industry is hit particularly hard by these rules because there is no definition between legitimate reviewers – who need products to actually do the job – and those offering up free marketing in exchange for free products. There IS a difference.
Journalists, although you’d never know it if you look at social channels, are in theory subject to the same rules as so called ‘influencers’ as all platforms are . But, again, those working in beauty (and possibly fashion) are hit harder by this because of the nature of the relationship between brands/PR and editorial. A beauty journalist’s job is to review, to advise and to educate and it’s the same job as a reviewing beauty blogger in those particular ways. In the same way a food critic can’t review food without any actual food, we can’t review beauty products without any, er, beauty products. The CMA views payment in a bigger picture – so even if no money changes hands, products or services, loans and or commissions (think affiliate links) should be declared across all platforms. Also, note that the CMA legislation applies across Europe.
Part of a beauty journalist’s job now is to drive traffic to their publications by using their own social channels – it’s a given that they will do this, or document brand events or products in some way that ties them to the publication and/or the brand. PRs are actively encouraged to use their own social channels to drive views to their clients to amplify visibility and nobody knows if that is influencing or not. Because the rules don’t cover these blurry areas, although apparently in the past, press have been hauled up by the ASA for non-declaration although I have never known it happen myself.
Declaring ‘past relationships’ from up to a year past in current posts is also very difficult to comply with. I’m writing about product ALL day every day – I have past relationships with almost every single brand (although I do not think ‘past relationship’ is defined enough – past paid? Past coffee? Past product samples? I don’t know how to even start with that one). But here’s the thing – even if I bought the product myself, I need to declare a past relationship. Even if my mum sent me a fragrance out of the blue and I told you about it, I’d have to declare a past relationship with the brand if I had one.
Although I don’t at all wish to comply with regulations (because I am adamant that product samples are not gifts and I have always declared everything) that are as yet so unclear and undefined (and also written, seemingly, by people who have never even seen Instagram or read blogs), brands are now getting nervous and issuing how they would like us to ‘declare’ so it’s almost impossible not to comply fully to this set of confusing and nonsensical rules. So, to run through in the most straightforward way here we go:
Every post, Instagram, FB or blog, should be written with the view that if someone who had never seen a beauty blog before would be completely clear how, and under what arrangements, the post occurred before engaging with the content. At the beginning of each post, I will use the term ( sample/gratis) if indeed that is the case. I’ll also use (affiliate) if the post contains those, even though I offer a non-affiliate link in every single post and have done for a long time. If I have bought a product but have had a previous relationship with the brand, the term could look like this (I bought it myself but the PR once bought me a glass of wine and some crisps and I’m not sure if that counts as a gift, an incentive or a relationship or all three or none especially as I have never seen them since). I joke on the last one but only a bit – you will now see these at the beginning of each post where applicable.
I do quite see why disclosures are important – it’s just respectful to your audience on whatever channel that may be that you are honest and open and many of us have done that all along. I think very soon audiences will become blind to the terms and hashtags used because you will see them so often they will quickly become invisible and I honestly don’t know how any of this is fully enforceable – the ASA can’t even offer seminars to brands desperate to know what to do because they don’t have the staff so quite how they’re going to trawl through the ENTIRE internet, I’m not sure.
The rulings are also somewhat open to interpretation and to intonation. The word #freebie might be right for certain styles of content creation, but it’s not right for all and is reductive in certain circumstances. I’ve always treated product samples with respect and as tools of my job: if I hashtagged #freebie on everything, I think it gives the impression that I spend my days rolling about in mascara and blush I didn’t pay for and laughing about it when nothing could be further from the truth.
An affiliate link is where a content creator gets a small amount of the price of the product and is, I think, where a lot of the problems begin. For most people, earnings don’t amount to much. For example, when I wrote about the Uniqlo cuddly coats, I was as surprised as anyone that my link resulted in over £6K of sales for the brand. From that I received £123, on which, of course, I will pay tax.
What you never see, and neither does the ASA or the CMA, is how hounded content creators are by affiliate companies. I get at least 8 or 9 emails a day asking me to affiliate link to certain products or brands but I stick to where I think the best value is (because I’m writing in reader’s best interests, not brands) or places I know BBB readers prefer to shop such as John Lewis or M&S who I think have best practice. But, even that isn’t straightforward. As an example, M&S asked for ‘tenancy’ on my site for the leopard print shirt post which means they paid me a fee to talk about anything from the new collection. Which is fine – I chose and bought that shirt with my own money because I liked it and have worn it – but the message was that if it performed well, I’d be included in further campaigns. So I featured the shirt (that I chose and paid for) and then the affiliate agency decided that I wouldn’t be part of future campaigns presumably because sales didn’t reach what they had hoped it would (although sales were more than the fee). Some content creators reach their own private affiliate agreements with brands or agencies and I have never, ever known an affiliate agency to ask us to comply with declaration regulations. In fact, I know that brands incentivise their best sales people by, for example, sending them product first or giving them exclusive links which means that other linkers are at a disadvantage from the get go. Have a look at that CMA.
Sales are everything to brands and content creators are considered by them to be sales vehicles, the pressures we face are enormous and I don’t mind sharing any of this with you. I will happily use affiliate links conscientiously and without ‘inciting’ people to part with money. It is very, very rare for me to say anything is ‘must have’ unless I truly believe it is so. The beauty market is dropping (presumably because we all have enough now) and so marketing has ramped to fever pitch including things like affiliate tenancies and offers of increased rates. Multiple revenue streams are key to being able to have a blog as a job – you cannot rely on advertising alone unless you fall into a handful of major players.
I would like the CMA in particular to look at affiliate practices. Incentivising is far more rife there than anywhere else and if you don’t, as a content creator, perform to their standards, you’ll soon find that particular revenue stream dries up. So, what to do? Everything around social media is a mess – every single brand has looked to capitalize on any and every channel they can via any route they can; excluding from campaigns unless you ‘sell’ more, refusing engagement because it doesn’t lead to sales, offering more and more to push you to your selling limits…. They can, often, be your route to success or to failure and as long as you feel you’re failing, you’ll work harder for them, right? There’s one well known high street store that won’t pay on affiliate links unless you’re talking about the products that they have said you should.
Even micro-influencers who are literally just telling us where they got their lovely dress from and never even interact with brands on a commercial level now look guilty. It is not just content creators that need more monitoring – and some do, let’s face it – let the CMA and the ASA do some deep diving into behind the scenes practices from brands and retailers before throwing all the responsibility on the many people like me, doing an honest job, trying to create a site that’s entertaining AND useful AND with a purpose over and above showing what I had for lunch in a lipstick I quite like.
*all products are sent to me as samples from brands and agencies unless otherwise stated. Affiliate links may be used. Posts are not affiliate driven.