Words by Mercia Tucker

The Cambridge English dictionary defines an influencer as “someone who affects or changes the way that other people behave, for example through their use of social media.” By definition, this could extend to any person whose paths we cross on social media whose opinion has swayed us in a particular aspect. By the Advertising Regulatory Board’s definition, ““Influencer” is an individual or group who brands pay to engage with social media in a certain way, on a certain topic or in the promotion of a brand or publisher.”

Where the dictionary definition refers to organic social media interaction, the ARB’s definition moves over to paid advertising which “allows companies and brands to spend money to increase the reach of their content or messaging within the applicable Social Media platform.”

Influencer marketing has seen a meteoric rise over the past five years in South Africa where it was practically non-existent previously. One of the fastest growing method of advertising, Business Insider’s Influencer Marketing report for 2018 estimates that ad spend on influencer marketing is poised to reach between $5 billion and $10 billion in 2022, representative of a compound annual growth rate of 38%.

With influencer marketing having higher user engagement than traditional marketing models, its popularity with brands is a no-brainer. Advertising in South Africa is broadly governed by the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008, and the Code of Advertising Standards of the Advertising Regulatory Board. Both documents promote the advertisement of products in an ethical and reasonable manner.  It is to this end that the ARB has spearheaded a new set of advertising guidelines specifically relating to social media and the advertising thereupon.

Speaking to Gail Schimmel, the CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board, on what necessitated these rules, she said “It was noticed that advertisers and influencers on Social Media in South Africa were not complying with the general Code of Advertising practice, or international norms. It was felt that these specific rules (we’re not mad about the word guidelines, which implies that they are for guidance only) would provide clarity and create awareness.”

The guidelines were first introduced in October 2018 and were circulated for public consultation and commentary. That commentary period ended on the 24 February and now need to be accepted by the ARB board. If that process runs smoothly, we should see them published in April.

The biggest takeaways from the guidelines are that “to ensure full transparency advertisers are required to disclose if content is part of a paid advertising campaign as opposed to purely Organic Social Media.” It goes on to say “where paid-for communication may appear to the consumer to be the unsolicited opinion of the influencer or platform, then the material must be clearly identified as advertising through the use of Supported Social Media identifiers.”

Simply put, social media influencers need to let you know which of their posts form part of campaigns, and they are to identify those posts with tags such as #Ad, #Advertisement, or #Sponsored.

It goes on to say “To ensure full transparency publishers and influencers are required to disclose if they were provided (permanently or on loan) with goods or services in return for media coverage (whether this is expressly stated or not). This helps reinforce publisher or influencer integrity while clearly allowing the consumer to make an informed opinion of the content and product.”

The premise of these guidelines is that of ethical behaviour and integrity so as not to mislead the consumer/general public. We reached out to Jay Badza for comment. The head of Orchard on 25, his boutique communications consultancy is responsible for rolling out marketing and communications campaigns on behalf of clients with a major focus on influencer marketing.

Jay Badza

On what ethical standard of advertising influencers should be held to, he says “I think influencer marketing should be held to the same standards that other marketing channels are held to. It is important that as marketing professionals we do not put out work that is misleading to consumers and hence the need to regulate the industry.”

We also spoke to Zoe Msutwana, a PR practitioner, whose job entails facilitating relationships between

brands, celebrities and influencers. I asked if by posting content without a disclaimer notifying the consumer that it is paid-for content, influencers engage in misleading and unethical behaviour.

She replied, “I’ve been conflicted on this one for a while because influencer marketing was formed solely based on creating authentic associations between brands and influential figures, as a means of them widening their reach. However, influencer marketing has evolved to become a viable adverting channel and as such, requires regulations to be put in place. I wouldn’t label the lack of disclosure as misleading and unethical because prior to the ARB’s new social media regulations, there was no means to measure accountability.”

Zoe Msutwana

Jay’s response to the same question was “Posting of content on influencer channels is not misleading to consumers, because, influencers are often providing their lived experiences with a particular brand or product. I would compare influencer marketing to product placements on TV and radio, the product is intricately woven into a story in order to drive awareness or purchase and in my opinion I think there isn’t anything misleading with that approach.”

We’ve seen international celebrities hashtag their sponsored social media posts with similar identifiers as their industries have already adopted similar regulation. The South African industry is starting to see these changes take effect.

Zoe says “I work with a lot of global brands, which has forced our agency to start enforcing these

rules on influencer campaigns, as the rollout has been in full effect globally for some time now. However, we have been experiencing some resistance and lack of compliance from some of the influencers we work with, which usually gets us into a lot of trouble. With more education around the regulations and implications, I do believe we will eventually get to a better space in sticking to the regulations. It has also been a huge wake up call to me personally; as we tend to take for granted the responsibility we have to our audiences.”

On the consequences that will be faced if both brands and influencers don’t adhere to the rules, Gail Schimmel has stated that “We only act if we get a complaint. Advertising that is found to be in breach should be withdrawn.” She adds, “Enforcement is going to be a challenge – as it is all around the world in this space! But through the co-operation of ethical marketers and the support of IAB members, we will hopefully see compliance.”

Asked if the new regulations will help or harm the industry, Jay Badza says “The new proposed regulation will not harm the industry, but it will help consumers determine for themselves whether they want to engage with the content or not, especially when they know that the content has been sponsored. However regulators need to note that Influencer Marketing has democratized the industry and created many opportunities for black creatives who usually would not have access to boardrooms. My only caution is that while tightening regulations, authorities need to be careful on how some of the rumored proposed regulations will also have economically implications for agencies and creatives.”

On how it affects his work, he says “The currently proposed regulations are very tricky for some of the work we do in the Earned Media space, where creative executions rely predominantly on the intrigue created by influencers. This work often has to come across not overtly branded in order for it to reach the desired outcomes. But besides that, everything is above board and some of the changes have already been rolled out by some of our clients especially in the alcohol space.”

Gail’s last words on the roll-out of these rules are optimistic. “I really do believe that it will give influencers integrity. Consumers will be able to better assess which influencers act with that integrity and which don’t – and make their decisions accordingly. It is the norm in the UK and in Europe and their influencer industry is going strong.”