How influencers sneak adverts into their posts without telling you
There are so many ways to get around sponsored content regulations
by Nian Hu
Many years ago, Instagram was a pure and beautiful place where people shared oversaturated photos of food and sunsets with captions like: "just thinking about last weekend #tbt." It was a place for people to embarrass themselves online and use twelve different Instagram filters to edit their selfies. Those were simpler times.
These days, Instagram is dominated by photos of some skinny blonde woman posing in downward dog with a bag of tea next to her face with a caption that goes something like this: "#ad #sponsored I am in LOVE with this tea detox, it helps me feel so strong and beautiful, use my code ANNA20 to get 20% off your next purchase, link in bio!!"
Judging by the sheer number of #ad #sponsored content I see on Instagram, it might seem like every influencer in the world is receiving free products or getting paid to post. But at least they have to disclose sponsored content…right?
Surprisingly, the answer is no. You don't actually need to disclose sponsored content! As a result, the number of people on your feed getting paid to promote products is probably EVEN HIGHER than you think.
View this post on Instagram
#ad I started the @teamiblends 30 day detox program because they promote a healthy lifestyle and it is important for me to feel my best🧡. I'm on day 7 right now… I have way more energy and it is like a magic tea to get rid of tummy bloat. I’m in love with their cute pink travel bottle💕. If you’re looking for a natural detox, this is it. Use code: KYLIE20 off yours #thankyouteami
Let's review the evidence, shall we? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in their official guide for social media influencers, people need to disclose sponsored content — hence, the proliferation of #ad and #sponsored in captions.
But it is shockingly easy to bypass those regulations. The FTC doesn't dictate where you put #ad, so you can easily hide it at the end of a long caption or mix it in among a bunch of other hashtags. What's more, the FTC doesn't even require you to explicitly write "ad" or "sponsored." You can say something extremely vague like "Thank you XYZ for the gift" and you're home free.
And even if you don't comply with the FTC regulations, there are pretty much no consequences. That's right — there is literally NO punishment whatsoever for people who flagrantly violate their rules.
In 2017, the FTC charged Trevor Martin and Thomas Cassell, two influencers in the online gaming community, for promoting a gambling website on social media without telling people that they actually OWNED the gambling website. A bit of a huge oversight, don't you think?
You'd think that the FTC would slap them with a fine or temporarily suspend them from social media or something. But what they ultimately decided on was this: "The proposed settlement requires Cassell, Martin, and the company to make those disclosures clearly and conspicuously in the future." In other words, absolutely NO consequences whatsoever.
So there you go. Aside from the dozens of sponsored posts with #ad in their captions, there are HUNDREDS of more posts that have been secretly paid for. You just don't know which ones.