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Influencer marketing may soon face more stringent rules for accuracy and ethics as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) moves to update its endorsement guidelines issued in 2009. Advocates of influencer marketing hope new guidelines don’t stifle authentic and appropriate online engagement.

Watchdog groups such as Consumer Reports are pressing the FTC to combat “prejudiced and fraudulent” online reviews, claiming influencer marketing in advertising and social media has become more prominent and often more misleading.

“The FTC needs to substantially expand the scope of the Endorsement Guides to clarify that companies cannot provide inducements to consumers or reviewers to engage in any type of social media engagement – including likes, follows, reposts, hashtags – unless that incentive can be disclosed to people who can view the engagement,” Consumer Reports said in submitted comments to the FTC. “In many cases, meaningful disclosure will be impossible, so the practice itself should be forbidden.”

The consumer group also advocates tougher enforcement by FTC. “Because of sporadic and weak enforcement, marketers may find the benefits from false endorsements (which are substantial) may outweigh the relatively low risk and consequences of getting caught,” Consumer Reports writes.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Center for Digital Democracy seek a ban on influencer marketing targeting children. “Children … lack the maturity to understand that influencer marketing is advertising and to evaluate it critically,” the groups said in comments. “They perceive it more like a recommendation from a friend. Thus, it is inherently deceptive to children.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, cited influencer marketing of detox tea, which he said can contain a laxative “with potentially damaging side effects to adolescents and young adults”.

The Association of National Advertisers has encouraged the FTC to make “substantial changes” to its Endorsement Guidelines, which the FTC appears likely to do.

The 2009 guidelines say online endorsers must disclose material connections between themselves and advertisers. In 2017, the FTC issued extensive endorsement advice that said social media users should disclose relationships with business or people they endorse in their reviews or Instagram posts. “The Guides, at their core, reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading. An endorsement must reflect the honest opinion of the endorser and can’t be used to make a claim that the product’s marketer couldn’t legally make.”

In 2019, the FTC released advertising guidance for online influencers, including tips for when “influencers must disclose sponsorships to their followers.”

Influencer marketing is a take-off on celebrity endorsements. According to Influencer Marketing Hub, “The main differentiator in the case of influencer marketing is that the results of the campaign are collaborations between brands and influencers.”

Influencers typically focus on a niche and actively seek an online following, with the objective of “affecting the purchasing decisions of others because of his or her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his or her audience, Influencer Marketing Hub says. Their appeal is to potential consumers who want a trusted source to sort out claims by brands. Their online audiences follow them, not necessarily the brands they review and endorse.

The collaboration between an influencer and brand can be authentic. It also can be a form of play-for-pay.

“Influencer marketing isn’t just about finding someone with an audience and offering them money or exposure so they can say good things about you. That’s what viral celebrities are for,” Influencer Marketing Hub insists. “Influencers are people who’ve spent time building their own brand and cultivating their audience; they will be naturally protective of their reputation and the people who trust them. They’re people who had the patience and focus to succeed in social media, one organic follower at a time – people like this aren’t interested in doing influencer marketing solely for the money.”

“The best social marketing works because it’s nothing more than a natural social interaction,” adds Influencer Marketing Hub. “The best content marketing works because the information is genuinely helpful. And the best influencer marketing works because it relies on both social and content marketing tools, where credibility and genuine authority are already established in the minds of the audience.”

[Information for this blog was drawn from a story by Wendy Davis published in Digital News Daily.]