People boosting their personal brand online by puffing up the products of big brands are making it harder to distinguish genuine opinion from paid-for promotion in our media. Do we need new rules to make it clear what they're up to?
Mediawatch got an email from a PR company in Sydney recently which offered us “an insight into one of Dan Carter’s post-rugby career” -- an investment in a dry cleaning business.
A bit later they got in touch again.
“Dan Carter has posted about his investment on his Facebook page - in case you’re keen to embed the post in an article or reference it in a segment,” they said.
No thanks. This was clearly a pitch for publicity for a new startup business based on a social media hand-out leveraging the profile of a celebrity investor.
Some major media outlets picked up the ball and ran with it, but some bids for free publicity aren’t always so easy to spot these days.
In the run up to the retail frenzy of Black Friday, The Edge’s Jay Jay Harvey blurted out a recommendation for a major clothing chain - and how to find it online.
“Was that a paid post?,” her co-host Dom Harvey asked.
Jay Jay said no, but it certainly sounded like one.
Earlier this month, The Spinoff website revealed TVNZ broadcast a story last year about the retailer Kmart which featured two people who were paid to promote the retailer.
Two lifestyle bloggers had been put forward by Auckland-based Undertow Media. Both also belonged to an agency called The Bloggers Club whose purpose is “to connect brands and people by building meaningful relationships.”
TVNZ said it was not aware of the relationship in that case, but last year Undertow Media proudly blogged about the exposure on 1News being “the icing on the cake” after hosting an event at which media people and bloggers mingled, and got free stuff from Kmart.
After finding out all this, TVNZ pulled the item from its website. Two stories which also featured the bloggers vanished from the Herald’s website too.
“We can’t have a story up if money has changed hands between the person who is commenting on this brand - and the brand itself," TVNZ head of newsgathering Phil O’Sullivan told The Spinoff.
The Spinoff reported that Undertow Media said that they were contacted by 1News to cover - in their words - “the mass hysteria over Kmart products.”
So-called ‘lifestyle bloggers’ feature heavily in some stuff.co.nz online stories about Kmart too.
One of those even asks the readers:
"Are you a committed Kmarter? We want to all about why you love it so much. Send your details, story and video or pictures".
Earlier this year stuff.co.nz published a string of stories about Kmart ahead of the opening of a new store north of Wellington. It was the 20th Kmart to open in NZ - and just 18 km from the first one in Porirua.
There were also stories on stuff.co.nz this year about Kmart stores not opening.
“The retailer has repeatedly quashed rumours it might be opening a store, but statements saying they are always looking for new sites have left a glimmer of hope,” said the Marlborough Express in April in another story headlined ‘Sucked into the Kmart vortex’
Most of the stories feature Linda van Kuyk, who set up a ‘Bring KMART to Blenheim’ Facebook page.
In August Linda was on the front page of The Blenheim Sun when Kmart announced a new Blenheim branch would open after all.
Another example of online influencer marketing?
Not this time. Linda's Twitter account has just two followers and only seven tweets.
But it shows how hard it is to distinguish genuine comment from paid PR.
In Australia, social media influencers must now clearly label sponsored content if the marketer controls their content or if it “draws the attention of the public in a manner calculated to promote a product or service.”
Is it time for similar new rules here, now that companies have formed to exploit social media to push brands directly to consumers?
The industry watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority - has had social media guidelines for advertisers since 2012.
"Rule One of our Code of Ethics which has been in place for decades says advertisements should be clearly distinguishable as such whatever the medium used," ASA chief executive Hilary Souter told Mediawatch.
"I don't think we need new rules. We need to observe the rules we have got," she said, but she says the ASA is updating its guidance in early 2018 in response to concerns about influencer marketing.
"When a new platform comes along, people have a panic about what the rules mean. Some people think the rules don;t apply. I'd like to disabuse them about that," she said.
But when does user-generated content online become an advert? It it time to demand the hashtag #ad on any post where a commercial relationship exists?
Social media posts that have been paid for that is advertising, she says. Online influencers also have responsibility for what other people post in response to a paid-for post, she added.
Broadcasters and the print media must vet adverts in advance.
"The money comes with responsibilities once you're in the commercial space," she said.
If online influencers want to be perceived as authentic and build there online reach and make more money, says Hilary Souter, they should disclose if they are given products for free even if the company providing the product for free has no control over what they post online.
The TVNZ / Kmart case shows media companies need to be wary when they know marketers agents have had a hand in the stories they’re publishing, she says.
"They should think twice about the source of the story and whether it really stacks up in terms of news value," Hilary Souter told Mediawatch.