Want to learn how to properly disclose sponsored Instagram posts, gifted products and other brand relationships? This guide to the disclosure on social media is for you.
How to disclose ads on Instagram has always been a thorny issue amongst influencers and there continue to be discrepancies across the board as to how influencers choose (or choose not) to disclose their brand relationships on Instagram.
I have spoken about this topic before on both my blog and Instagram but I continue to see people disclosing their brand relationships in a non-compliant manner and I continue to have conversations with influencers about how they are confused.
As such, I thought it would be helpful to explain the rules properly in a blog post, which I hope will clarify any queries that people have, most especially with regards to products that are “gifted with no obligation to post”, a term I see bandied around all the time.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
The ASA first released their guidelines for influencers in September 2018. Influencers frequently complained that these guidelines were “not clear” and so the UK’s advertising regulators published further guidance in February 2020 in a guide entitled “An Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads“.
Whilst influencers will still complain that the guidelines are still “not clear”, I’d disagree. The spirit of these guidelines is to protect consumers and make advertising more transparent. With that in mind, I think it is clear that any and all brand relationships need to be disclosed to an influencer’s followers.
I note that whilst this blog post predominantly focuses on Instagram, as that is the platform on which I most often engage in brand relationships, this applies to other social media platforms too, including new ones like Tik Tok.
The ASA actually made their first ruling against a Tik Tok star in late 2020. Bear in mind that these bodies regulate advertising generally, not just social media adverts, so this is something to be aware of in all advertising work you engage in.
Please read this guide in its entirety. There are several different bodies, components and guidelines to consider in relation to influencer advertising and I have come to the below conclusions in relation to disclosure by reading a large range of official sources.
There is no single resource that answers all of the below queries on one page, which is why I have written this post.
This post relates only to UK regulations for influencers. US influencers should check the regulations prescribed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States.
Nothing in this post constitutes legal advice and you should form your own conclusions as to how to disclose your brand relationships on Instagram.
- Why should I care about this?
- Who are the advertising regulators?
- What is an ad?
- How do I disclose ads?
- Disclosure labels
- Thorny situations in which you still need to disclose
- What happens if I fail to disclose my sponsored posts?
- Will using “ad” on my posts lower my reach?
- RECAP – What posts do I need to disclose?
So first of all…
Why should I care about this?
One of the most amazing things about the influencer marketing industry is that anyone with a passion for their niche can grow an account and create a business from their passion. The problem with this is that influencers are often regular joes who have no “training” for such a role.
That might seem like a silly thing to say but “influencers”, as the name suggests, do have a great deal of power over other social media users and should ensure that they are wielding it correctly. Especially when influencing the actions and purchasing decisions of the public.
There are no official Instagram influencer guidelines to read when you create your account, so many influencers are unaware that there are any sort of rules that they should be complying with.
However, social media and influencer marketing are areas that are coming under increasing scrutiny from a number of different angles.
In March 2021, the UK Government department for Digital Media, Culture & Sport launched an inquiry into “influencer culture”. They intend to examine the power of influencers on social media, how influencer culture operates and will consider the absence of regulation on the promotion of products or services.
This suggests further regulation is coming so it’s best to start learning about how you should be behaving on social media now.
Who are the advertising regulators?
Advertisements, including those by way of influencer marketing, are regulated by a number of authorities and laws in the UK. The three you need to know about are the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA), the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Competiton and Markets Authority (the CMA).
The Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA) is the UK’s advertising regulator. It is independent of the UK Government and is funded by the advertising industry itself.
It’s the ASA’s job to make sure that UK media of various kinds, including social media influencers, stick to the advertising rules.
They do this by monitoring ads, conducting research and responding to consumer complaints.
Their remit is limited to non-broadcast advertising so they don’t have any say over television adverts.
The Committee of Advertising Practice (the CAP) works closely with the ASA and can be thought of as its sister organisation. The CAP is responsible for writing the advertising codes such as the CAP Code (UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing) and BCAP Code (UK Code of Broadcast Advertising).
The CAP Code is relevant for influencers as marketing communications on websites, apps and cross-border platforms (e.g. social media platforms) are within its remit.
The Competiton and Markets Authority (the CMA) is an independent, non-ministerial department of the UK Government.
They want to make sure that we, the public, get a good deal when buying goods and services. Competition encourages innovation and drives prices down which means better products at lower prices.
The CMA investigate mergers between large companies (i.e. if Tesco wanted to buy Sainsbury’s), take action against businesses involved in anti-competitive behaviour (i.e. Google removing third party cookies from its browsers) and more.
One of their jobs is to protect consumers from unfair trading practices and that’s why they’re interested in influencer marketing.
Now on to the main event.
What is an ad?
Under the ASA guidance, there are two key elements that make an ad an ad. Payment and control.
This means that a brand has to both pay for a post and exert some sort of control over a post in order for it to be deemed an ad.
For example, if you are paid £200 for an Instagram post and the brand has final approval over the copy then this is an ad.
I think most influencers are clear that this kind of relationship needs to be disclosed as an ad. However, the term “ad” encompasses many other types of brand relationships.
Let’s break this down further.
What is “payment”?
The ASA’s definition of payment not only includes monetary compensation (i.e. cash) but lots of other reciprocal arrangements too.
“Gifted” products, hotel stays, complimentary services and more are all considered payment.
What is “control”?
If you weren’t at liberty to post literally any picture and caption you wanted, at any time you wanted, with no further input from the brand, then it is likely that the brand will have had “control” over the post in the regulators’ eyes.
“Control” can include asking you to create a certain type of post (i.e. unboxing video), posting at a certain time on a certain day, requiring the inclusion of specific messaging and more. Even if the only action the brand wants to take is to reserve the right to check and sign off on the content before it is published, this is control.
How do I disclose ads?
So now we know what an ad is (basically everything), how do we disclose them?
Sponsored Instagram posts and brand relationships should be disclosed using the simple label “ad”, or similar.
The ASA specifically states that it is on board with the following terms:
- Advertisement Feature
Terms that the ASA specifically says may be unclear include:
- Supported by/Funded by
- In association with
- Thanks to [brand] for making this possible
- Just @ [mentioning the brand]
- Any other abbreviations/words that consumers are unlikely to be familiar with
It’s worth noting that at some point the ASA updated and republished its Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads and it now specifically says that terms like “gifted” and “aff” should not be used. These were not mentioned in the original guide.
I know this because I found two versions of the document available online, so please make sure you’re using the one linked above.
Now where do you put these labels?
This should appear at the beginning of the caption and not the end of the caption and definitely not hidden amongst the hashtags.
How does this apply to different scenarios? Let’s take a look:
How to disclose ads on Instagram posts
When posting a sponsored post to your main IG feed, you should be using “ad” at the beginning of your caption as well as the “paid partnership” feature. The former is an ASA requirement, the latter is an Instagram requirement. Both are important.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you use ad, #ad or [ad] – the advertising regulators just want to see the word “ad” (or similar). The brand you’re working with may have specified which specific format they want to use though so be sure to chat this through with them.
How to disclose ads on Instagram stories
The key thing with disclosure on Instagram stories is to make sure that the disclosure is NOT hidden by either the bar at the top where it displays your username, or at the bottom underneath the reply bar.
This is a common tactic I’ve seen influencers use to try and hide their disclosure but the ASA deem this to be inappropriate (see Zoella example in below section).
When moving text around on an Instagram story, these features appear on the screen (though slightly transparent) so you know how to avoid them. Saying that you weren’t sure where those boundaries were is not an excuse.
Again, you should be using the “paid partnership” feature to comply with Instagram’s guidelines but you need to use “ad” clearly on the image to comply with the ASA.
How to disclose gifted products / PR products / experiences
I’ll preface this section by saying that I firmly believe the term “gifted” should not be used by influencers. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it.
Gifts are what you find under the tree at Christmas. Items sent to you by brands are PR products sent with an expectation that in doing so you will promote their brand.
Even if PRs say there is no obligation to post, they are obviously hoping that you love the product enough to share it anyway.
Most importantly on this point, however, is the fact that the ASA itself even says that you should not use the term gifted.
Terminology aside, although no money has exchanged hands, PR products that appear on your feed still need to be disclosed. As discussed above, PR products or services that are given to you are considered as a form of payment.
Now remember that you need two elements for a post to be considered an ad: payment and control.
If something is sent to you and there is truly “no obligation to post” (no brand control, no hashtags/messaging provided etc.), then, arguably, there is no “control” and therefore it wouldn’t be considered an ad by the ASA.
However, as stated at the beginning, the CMA is another body that needs to be considered when it comes to influencer marketing.
And the CMA say that all brand relationships and “freebies” (the CMA’s term, not mine) need to be disclosed. This includes products that are gifted with no obligation. If you received it for “free” (even if you were loaned a product!) then you need to disclose it.
You can read the CMA’s own guidance in relation to influencer’s here.
Ok, now things get really interesting. Let’s talk affiliate links, giveaways and your own products. These all need to be disclosed. In the ASA’s own words:
The ASA can also take action where you’re advertising your own products (whether you’re creating and selling
them yourself or doing so in collaboration with a third party), running a competition, prize draw or giveaway and when you post affiliate marketing.
How to disclose affiliate links
Affiliate links are an interesting one because, most often, the influencer has absolutely zero contact or relationship with the brand.
Given that one of the key parts of an “ad” is the element of “control”, it seems a little unfair that affiliate links need to be disclosed using the same terminology. But that’s the way it is.
What’s key to note here is that “aff link” is not sufficient disclosure. Do you really think all of your followers understand what aff link means? Sure, other bloggers and influencers may understand this term but a large number of your followers probably won’t.
In fact, I know they don’t because there are thousands of Google searches each month for what “aff” means. It’s not clear. Don’t use it.
And, yes, the ASA really do care about this as they issued a warning to Zoella for incorrect disclosure of ASOS affiliate links in 2020. She used the word “affiliate” only (no “ad”) and placed the text underneath the reply bar on her Instagram story so it was partially obscured.
The ASA said that both the placement of the text as well the use of the word “affiliate” were inappropriate and insufficient for declaring a commercial relationship with the brand in question.
How to disclose a giveaway
I think giveaways are the type of post that are most overlooked when people interpret the ASA’s influencer guidelines. There are a lot of restrictions on running giveaways, both under the influencer marketing rules and also generally under the CAP Code (which applies to influencers).
The ASA say:
You will also need to make sure it’s clear when you’re posting about your own products/services; e.g. products you’ve created or events you’re running etc., or any prize draws or giveaways you do.
This includes both giveaways that you run alongside a brand and giveaways that are fully funded by you.
Further, giveaways and promotions come with a lot more rules which you can read about under Section 8 of the CAP Code. Some key things to note are that you need to include certain information in every giveaway post, such as the start and closing date, any entry requirements, entry restrictions (e.g. geographical restrictions) and more.
It’s even a requirement that you, the promoter, include your full name and address.
There’s a lot to unpack in Section 8 and I highly recommend that you give it a read before running any of your own giveaways. Whilst they are a fun thing to host on Instagram, there are a huge amount of obligations to comply with that you need to consider.
An example of a giveaway gone wrong…
The ASA ruled against influencer Molly Mae Hague in early 2021 for a giveaway that she ran when she hit 1 million YouTube subscribers. The ASA decided the giveaway was unfair as she hadn’t been transparent at all about how a winner would be chosen or many of the other giveaway terms.
She did not give the thousands and thousands of entrants a fair chance of winning and instead cut corners as she said she found it “overwhelming”. Alas, a number of followers complained and the ASA upheld the complaint.
Something to consider before running your own giveaway.
Now let’s dive a little deeper into disclosure labels and language you can use. As mentioned above, the recommended and required label is simply “ad”.
However, influencers often complain that there’s no way to distinguish between ads that are paid for and ads that are gifted. Well, one simple way is to use Instagram’s “paid partnership” feature.
Instagram is also coming under greater scrutiny from regulators to try and ensure influencers are disclosing and the CMA took action against it recently. As a result, Instagram agreed to do more to prevent hidden advertising on its app and website, so you really should be making use of their “paid partnership” tool.
You may have already noticed that if you fail to use this feature that Instagram will often flag your content and ask that you tag the relevant brand.
BUT please note that this is in addition to using the label “ad”. The paid partnership feature is not a substitute for use of the word “ad”.
I know from personal experience that brands often forget to authorise you to use this tagging mechanism before the ad goes live and so you have no choice but to go live without it.
I would encourage you all to remember to flag this to the brand well ahead of time and get confirmation from them that they have authorised you.
Of course, if they forget or don’t respond, post the ad as is but I would recommend following up afterwards in any case and you can add this tag later.
You can also choose to use a longer disclosure label to differentiate between different types of brand relationships. Some that I like to use include the below:
- Ad | PR Product
- Ad | PR Invite
- Ad | Press Trip
- Ad | Review Copy
- Ad | Affiliate
- Ad | Giveaway
Please note that “ad” is always required and none of these would be sufficient without it.
Thorny situations in which you still need to disclose
It was gifted… but there was no obligation to post!
The subject of gifted items that have been sent with no obligation to post are the murkiest of alll when it comes to disclosure. This is the area that I find divides influencers the most and I see people take completely differing approaches from declaring these as ads, in the same way they would other paid or gifted content, or not declaring them at all.
Further, if you look at this handy flow chart, there is no distinction here in the section about “gifted” items as to whether it was posted as part of a prior agreement or posted out of the blue.
However, as explained above, the CMA advises that you declare all “freebies” and brand relationships and it does not distinguish between those where this is and is not an “obligation to post”.
I am in an ongoing partnership with this brand but this particular post about their product is not part of our agreement
If you are in an ongoing partnership with a brand and you choose to publish additional content that you have not been contracted to post, then you still need to declare this as an ad. Even if you haven’t been paid for the content, the brand hasn’t seen the content and you thought you were posting about it organically, it needs to be declared as an ad.
The ASA ruled against popular YouTuber Emily Canham after she promoted a GHD discount code to her followers in an otherwise organic post. She was in an ongoing contract with the hair straightening brand, however, the specific content in question did not form part of the agreement and she had not been paid for it. The brand was not even aware of it.
Despite this, the ASA said that she needed to be transparent about the relationship and the term “ad” should have been used prominently on the post.
It’s also good practice to declare you had a previous relationship with a brand when you include those products in a post at a later date.
I’m running a giveaway, I’ve paid for the prize myself and the post is not affiliated with any brand
I hate to break it to you but… this is still an ad.
The post is a promotion for your account and you are the promoter.
It’s an advert for yourself.
Check out Section 8 of the CAP Code for more information.
I’m promoting my own products on Instagram
Did you know that when you promote your own products on Instagram this counts an ad?
Although you are not in a “brand” relationship, you do have underlying commercial motives in posting and promoting your own products and therefore these need to be declared.
You could use the label “Ad | Own Product“.
For example, whenever prominent influencer Lydia Millen posts about her own self-tanning brand, GLO, she discloses them as an ad. See here.
What happens if I fail to disclose my sponsored posts?
I suppose now you want to know what the punishment is for incorrect disclosure. And up until very recently, there ASA has done very little. It is one of my biggest gripes is that the punishment for incorrect disclosure is so weak.
However, as of 2021, the ASA revealed that they are beginning to crack down on non-compliant behaviour when it comes to ads. They’ve already introduced a dedicated page on their website where they “name and shame” influencers who are repeat offenders. The first influencers were added to this page on 18 June 2021.
Influencers featured on this page will be subject to routine spot checks by the ASA to check that their new content is compliant and will remain on the dedicated page for at least 3 months.
Some may ask what the point in all this is. The idea is that having their name up there may damage their reputation and affect future brand relationships as brands may think twice before working with them.
I’ve seen lots of people saying that they think educating these influencers is a better way forward than naming and shaming. But on this point, the ASA says:
“We prefer to work with influencers and brands to help them stick to the rules, but the first influencers to be named on this list have been given every opportunity to treat people fairly about their ads. It’s not difficult: be upfront and clear when posts and stories are ads. If this doesn’t bring about the changes we expect, we won’t hesitate to consider further sanctions.”
It’s key to note that this is just the beginning.
The ASA is also working with social media agencies to work to have non-compliant removed, issues fines and even take out Google ad space denouncing the influencers and brands in question!
Indeed on 18 January 2022, the ASA made good on its promise to issue further sanctions and took out Instagram adverts against six influencers who repeatedly breach disclosure rules.
These adverts targetted those influencers’ audiences specifically and read:
“[Name] has been sanctioned by the UK’s ad regulator for not declaring ads on this platform. Be aware that products and services recommended or featured by this influencer may have been paid for by those brands. Our non-compliant social media influencer page at asa.org.uk is regularly updated to inform consumers of those who break these rules.”
This is highly damaging to an influencer’s reputation and brands will likely think twice about partnering with someone on this list so you don’t want to find yourself on it.
It’s also worth checking what the contractual terms of your agreement with a brand are, as there may be penalties for breach of contract and disclosing properly may be a key provision.
Whatever the guidance is, you should be disclosing your commercial relationships to protect your followers’ trust in you, to protect consumers’ trust in influencers and social media and just because it’s … honest.
Will using “ad” on my posts lower my reach?
One common reason that influencers do not disclose their brand relationships is because they are afraid that if the term “ad” is used on a post, especially at the beginning, that it will discourage followers from liking it.
And the harsh reality is that this is often true.
However, this isn’t a reason not to disclose your ads properly.
I firmly believe that explaining and educating your followers as to how sponsored posts on Instagram work and being very transparent about what is and isn’t an ad will only increase their trust in you.
Over time, hopefully they will come to actively support your adverts and appreciate that in exchange for all the wonderful free content influencers produce, they need to post the occasional ad.
If your reach is lower on ads then the answer is not to hide the fact you are doing ads.
Instead ask yourself why the reach was lower.
- Is it because my followers don’t like being advertised to?
- Is it because my followers don’t like this image?
- Is it because my followers don’t like this brand?
- Does this post align with the rest of my content?
- Is it simply the algorithm?
Answering these questions and analysing your own account can help you understand what it is your followers may not have liked about the post. It may not have been the fact it was an ad, they may have simply not liked the photo.
This is more likely to be the case if the ad doesn’t fit in with the rest of your content.
You should make sure that you are only doing ads for products that fit in with your online content and that you think your followers will truly resonate with. Be picky about the ads that you do.
NB. These questions are worth asking yourself for non-ad related posts too!
RECAP – What posts do I need to disclose?
- A post you have been paid for
- A post you have been sent a product for (obligation to post)
- A post you have been sent a product for (no obligation to post)
- A post including a product you have been loaned
- A post containing affiliate links
- Any brand ambassadorships
- A giveaway in collaboration with a brand
- A giveaway run by yourself
- A post promoting your own brand
It’s clear that pretty much every single brand relationship and promotion, whether direct or indirect, needs to be disclosed on Instagram. The best way to do this is to use the “ad” label on any of the above posts.
If in doubt, label the post as an ad.
It’s better to be overly transparent with your followers than not transparent enough.
People are so afraid of the word ad but, come on, it’s just a two letter word!
Disclose. your. ads.
If you found this post helpful, please support me with a small contribution on Ko-Fi. This information was provided free of charge but is invaluable to influencers and I’d really appreciate your support!
Please also consider sharing it with your fellow influencers. We all need to work together to regulate influencer marketing and make it a safe online industry for us and our followers.
This information is based on published guidance as of January 2022.