Last year The Spinoff broke a story about Mum Bloggers that were interviewed for a One News story about K-Mart. Journalists found these bloggers were paid $500 for their endorsement. The public went up in arms. Somehow, our state broadcaster found itself showing an advertisement passed off as genuine opinion in the prime-time broadcast. TV One, embarrassed, pulled the story from its archives.
The story marked a new low in the erosion of trust between the public and tax-payer funded news. But more personally, readers directed fury at the “hypocrisy” of the bloggers themselves, for not disclosing that they’d been paid, stating in the past that they found non-disclosure ‘disgusting’. People started talking about what regulation existed in New Zealand for the predominantly female dominated world (yes, there are some men but they're fewer overall, worldwide) of ‘influencer marketing.’
The Growth of an Industry and Disclosure
Blogging has changed remarkably over the last decade in New Zealand - from an unpaid passion to established marketing channel. Currently, the 'influencer' industry is thought to be worth 1 billion worldwide. By 2020 it will be worth anywhere from $2.6 billion – $10 billion (depending on source). As a result, clever marketers are working quickly to harness the influence of writers, photographers, video makers and tweeters who have built an audience online on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter (Content Creators). As such advertising spend is shifting from more traditional sources like billboards and print towards online ‘influencers’ (as the marketing industry calls us).
Often people ask how a blogger makes money. One of the main ways, and most reliable ways, is via a sponsored post. Today, being a blogger is an expensive pursuit, even as a hobby. A girl needs to pay for her Lightroom Subscription somehow! There's also Facebook ads, upgrading equipment, coffees out, royalty free music subscriptions for YouTube and so many more expenses. Hence, the need to monetise some of your content (ideally not all), regardless of whether you want to turn it into a full-time job one day.The attraction for a marketer in hiring a Content Creator is the organic connection between a Content Creator and their audience. However, an apparent awkwardness can arise when a person is paid to tell their audience about a product or brand, especially because the connection a Content Creator has to his or her audience is seen to be more intimate and genuine and therefore should not be monetised as it can be seen as 'selling out'.
As a result, the disclosure of a paid post by a Content Creator in accordance with the Advertising Standards Authority’s standards is only adhered to by some people online, whereas others would prefer to dodge apparent awkwardness. Many people just don't say when a paid post is sponsored. By law, they need to. But as the ASA has no teeth (ie it can't impose fines), they risk nothing in not disclosing. It feels like Kiwi cringe. Is it just that we don’t like the idea of someone being paid to sell to us? Or is part of a long history of women traditionally being unpaid to do creative work?
Women creatives - has anything changed?
Could it be that creating content online is a continuation of our creativity and poses similar challenges that women have faced in the past? Is making something digitally really so different from making something physical, like a painting, embroidery or dress-making? Historically, ‘the decorative arts' has been undervalued (where women have traditionally contributed). While men would be lauded for their great efforts and skill, women were encouraged to literally stick to their knitting. They were seldom rewarded for their efforts because as men’s chattel they could not earn money from them. Instead, women were encouraged to do such things (and raise a family) because they were inherently rewarding. Art History books have forgotten women artists and dismissed work such as embroidery as frivolous. As a result, there is little precedent for women earning money commercially as creatives, even in 2017.
The need for women to appear effortless in what they make, and naturally accomplished as opposed to working hard and trying, has flowed into the Content Creation generation. In a 2016 Remix article, incredible success story, Australian blogger Margaret Zhang, claimed she gained her hundreds of thousands of followers by accident “Honestly, I needed web storage space...I had way too many images and had filled my dad’s computer – he wanted them off his computer, so I uploaded them onto a blog with a caption of what it was and why I liked it…. I think I was 16 at the time and it’s just grown very organically from there.” Whether true or not, such stories confirm the narrative women hear as girls as fairy tales - not to seem pushy but to be naturally perfect and accomplished. In reality, just like learning lady-like deportment for women in Jane Austen’s age, naturalistic content that is relatable to a reader frequently demands great time and effort to make. 200 photos and 3 editing apps may be needed to get that one perfect Instagram shot (I for one, doubt the photos I took when I was 16 would have gained much traction online).
To sell out or not to sell out?
Disclosure by using #AD or #Sponsored marks some financial reward for a persons effort. But it can also appear to mean ‘selling out’ if taken cynically, and if we believe that bloggers, Instagrammers or other content creators should never be paid but do it for love. Brands would sometimes rather a blogger did not make it clear they were paid to do work. For example, when I did a paid blog post with a brand, they asked me not to put ‘AD’ in the header as I typically would do, but ‘Sponsored Post’ in the tagline instead. I awkwardly obliged. While I still had clear disclosure, and so was in fact NOT in breach of guidelines, it felt a bit shifty. This is just the tip of ambiguity that haunts the 'influencer' iceberg. Frequently, confusing hashtags such as #sp or #collab are used to mark disclosure. What should be a sign of pride, of having achieved a level of success, turns into an icky large slippery slope of grey area.
Some want to perpetuate that we’re always a reliable friendly blogger or Instagrammer, and ideally wouldn’t be compensated, no matter how many followers one has or years of work have preceded. While I won’t work with a brand I don’t genuinely like or believe in, it feels like being begrudged for years of hard work as a creative. I've always asked, "Why can’t we just make money from doing something creative we’re great at, disclose it, have an audience get it and feel like a boss?"
The Updated ASA Guidance Note – Real Change or Just for the Regulators?
As the industry matures, however, influencer disclosure is being confronted as a serious regulatory affair worldwide. The UK now has strict & clear guidance around disclosure of paid posts and affiliate marketing, and the United States Federal Trade Commission and Australian Association of National Advertisers have followed suit.
The ASA in New Zealand has finished consulting on an updated guidance note to set more guidance in place and supplement the existing, high-level disclosure standards for the industry. I wrote a submission to urge the ASA to consider the imbalance of powers between bloggers and the marketing industry. I also asked whether they’d promote the standards with a campaign to improve public awareness about disclosure, led by influencers themselves. The final guidance note can be read here. Amazingly, they took on many of my words, including "otherwise known as independent content creators" and also acknowledging that the audience doesn't belong to the brand - it is the content creators audience who the brand is seeking to access. I also wrote that the note to make it more clear that all parties should be responsible, including myself as a blogger, not just a brand.
As I wrote, I wondered: How many other bloggers submitted, or was it mainly the voice of brands and marketers that set the tone? Will people outside of regulators actually read these? Currently, the ASA Guidelines say simply that anything that has been paid for must be clearly marked ‘Ad’. Hopefully with new guidelines brands will sit up and take notice. The New Zealand Herald certainly has. Only time will tell.
More than policy guidance, the cultural attitude to content creators needs to change. Women need to be given more credit for their creative work, told to think of it as a business, and encouraged that there is no shame in disclosure and champion pride in the effort that goes into making something popular online. While this doesn’t mitigate the past, it does highlight the need to evolve attitudes and ask ‘What culture have we created?’, rather than point the finger and, once again in herstory, laying blame.