Instagram has an advertising problem. We’ve all learned the signs of an “influencer” and their paid posts: The tagging of a brand out of nowhere, the sudden appearance of a product never mentioned before, and of course hashtags that are clearly and lovingly designed by a marketing department. Even Instagram has had enough, and the company’s experimenting with ways of cracking down on paid posts that don’t disclose their promotional status.
Influencer disclosure is such a problem that the FTC recently stepped in with a warning about it. So Instagram is testing a tool that “lets” influencers tag brands as a post sponsor, which will put a banner up top marking the post as a paid partnership. Instagram insists that they’re just helping influencers be the best they can be, but for influencers this new “feature” is a double-edged sword.
Influencer marketing is tricky in general, not least because the jury’s still out on whether it works The whole idea is that the brand just found this incredible advocate for their product on social media and is giving them a bigger bullhorn. But as much as we joke about the internet having something for everybody, the reality of advertising is that it’s largely an attempt to get people excited about things that just aren’t exciting (diet tea, anyone?). So what’s the line between somebody who really thinks this product is amazing stuff, and somebody who’s only talking about it because they were sent a case, and perhaps a check to go with it? Even if the influencer is sincere in what they’re saying, would they say it if they weren’t being catered to, somehow? That’s what Instagram (and the FTC) is unsure of.
And then there’s the question of accountability. While not clearly marking paid posts as sponsored content is breaking the law, in the end it relies on an honor system; nobody’s spending tax dollars to create an Instagram Accountability Task Force, and even the most rosy look at the problem still acknowledges influencers get asked not to disclose by brands. If being an influencer is your job, what’s more likely: You stand on your principles, or you take the check?
Influencer marketing works, if it works at all, based on a suspension of disbelief — that the person we’re following is a genuine fan, not one paid to be. But if influencers are going to stick around, they’ll need to figure out how to reconcile that with the need to be honest with their followers, or Instagram — and others — will do it for them.