How influencer marketing has moved the ethical goalposts. Again

OPINION: The distinction between paid advertising and personal endorsement used to mean something. But when it comes to Instagram influencers shilling for restaurants, the line has become blurred
By Corey Mintz - Published on April 3, 2019
a person taking a photo of their dinner
Nearly 70 per cent of complaints that Canada’s Competition Bureau receives — about 3,500 a year — involve deceptive marketing. (iStock.com/YakobchukOlena)

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When I got the press release, I thought I was being pranked. It described Node as “the first mobile app that gives influencers free meals at restaurants in exchange for their Instagram photos.”

Publicists send out this kind of email by the hundreds. I’m just one on a long list of food writers. But, this time, the publicist bothered to personalize the pitch: she signalled that she was familiar with my work by mentioning a column I’d recently written for TVO.org.

Curious, I looked at the provided list of clients and samples. They were the typical Instagram posts by influencers exchanging promotion for food: the juicy close-up of a fried-chicken sandwich; the model leaning next to an also-there ice-cream cone; the wide-mouthed “this burger is bigger than my face” pose.

At first, I didn’t think Node was worth further attention. The publicist, hoping that I would help promote her company, had made a mistake: I don’t like this type of advertising. But over the last few years, each time I’ve gotten upset about it, I’ve been given all the reasons why I shouldn’t care.

People my age, raised to believe in the importance of distinguishing paid advertising from personal endorsements, are living in the past. I’m old; I don’t get it. Young people don’t care about such distinctions, I’m told (by the same folks who say that consumers can spot an ad and are too savvy to fall for this style of shilling). Some people believe that influencer advertising does work but dismiss any ethical concerns via cynical aphorisms: a fool and his money are soon parted, and you can’t cheat an honest person.

I posted a screenshot of the email on Twitter (redacting the company’s name), had a few chuckles, and forgot about it.

A week later, though, I was reminded of Node when I read a New York Times story about “kidfluencers” — children with popular social-media accounts (managed by their parents) who are paid to market snack food and toys to other children through their online profiles.

Suddenly, the argument that only suckers get conned by influencers didn’t hold water.

Not only does this sort of content deceptively market to children, it also implicitly makes “influencer” seem like a sound career choice. Parents have the right to tell their kids that spending all day at the gym/tanning salon in order to look pleasing enough to shill for energy bars is a good idea. But it runs counter to everything we preach in public schools, houses of worship, and Disney movies — namely, that knowledge and integrity are more important than how we look or dress.

There were recently two feature-length documentaries made about the Fyre Festival that illustrate how a con artist used social-media influencers, paid to advertise a music festival that didn’t exist, to swindle consumers out of millions of dollars. But while there is a compulsive fraudster at the centre of the story (in the docs, he is seen committing a similar scam while out on bail), influencers were the tool he used to fleece his victims.

It’s the same tool being used to sell your kids Mattel Pooparoos and hustle you vegan pink-truffle mac and cheese and extravagant seafood towers under the guise of personal recommendations.

The bare minimum for transparency, according to Ad Standards, the Better Business Bureau, and the federal Competition Act, is to identify this type of advertisement as advertisement. “Influencers should clearly disclose any material connections they have with the companies whose products or services they feature,” states the Deceptive Marketing Practices Digest, which is published by Canada’s Competition Bureau, an independent law-enforcement agency that enforces the Competition Act.

Nearly 70 per cent of complaints the bureau receives — about 3,500 a year — involve deceptive marketing. “We strongly encourage anyone who feels they have been misled by false or misleading representations to contact the Bureau and file a complaint,” says senior communications adviser Eric Joyce, by email. “All allegations of false or misleading representations are taken very seriously. When we find evidence of behaviour contrary to the law, we do not hesitate to take action.”

Joyce added that he recommends influencers ask themselves, “‘Will it be clear to readers who see this content for the first time that I have a material connection with the company who sells the product or service?’ before publishing content. If the answer to this is no, or is in doubt, then the disclosure will not necessarily protect the influencer from potential liability.”

While many of the posts I saw that had tagged Node or that Node itself had published were extensively hashtagged — with #blogto, #cravethe6ix, #craveto, #feedmetoronto, #foodtoronto, #narcitytoronto, #nowtoronto, #tastethesix, #tastetoronto, #topcitybites, #tofoodie, #dishedto, #yelptoronto, #yelpgta, #dailyhiveto, #nodeapp, #instafoodies, #burger, #blogto, #craveto, #feedfeed, #gastropost, #igfoodie, #foodography, #eatthis, and/or #foodbeast, among others — I couldn’t find one that included the standard hashtag #ad. It took 10 minutes of scrolling to find a post that stated, “This post is sponsored.”

This type of advertising is rampant on Instagram. It wouldn’t be fair to single out Node for it — if the company hadn’t contacted me first. Asked whether Node requires influencers to disclose material connections to advertisers using the #ad hashtag, the company’s marketing and communications specialist Allysha Yung responded, “The influencers that sign up on our platform have an understanding that they are delivering an Instagram post in exchange for free food!” Armin Faraji, a team lead for Node, later followed up with an email stating that “while it is up to influencers to include the proper disclosures, brands that use our platform to connect with influencers are responsible for instructing the influencers they work with.”

We live in rapidly changing times. Our values are shifting; goalposts are moving faster than we can adapt. Influencer marketing is just another example of technology outpacing our ability to have meaningful, timely conversations about what these changes mean for our culture.

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