Brands could be wasting money on shonky influencers, and regulators are struggling to prevent hidden advertising on social media platforms.
Aussie brands are failing to vet the influencers they use to promote their products.
More than a month after The Feed’s four-part exposé on influencer marketing went to air, the @thatcoastalgirl account on Instagram has continued to receive offers from brands wanting so-called influencer, Mia Wilde, to spruik their products.
This account is entirely fake. Mia Wilde and @that coastalgirl was created by The Feed to take a close look at the rise of sponsored content on social media. The investigation exposed an industry that’s riddled with fake accounts, where influencers can literally buy likes and follows to artificially inflate their reach, and attract the interest of brands.
The Feed’s investigation was picked up extensively by other media, and discussed by those within the influencer marketing industry.
And yet some brands didn’t get the memo.
“Hi Mia, I am pleased to personally gift you 2 pairs of eyewear of your choice!” reads an email sent to Mia Wilde by a representative for Australian eyewear brand, Oscar Wylee.
“In exchange for the 2 pairs that are gifted, we would love to see 2 posts on Instagram or TikTok + a 10-15 second video of you wearing/using the frames that we can use for ads on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok”.
The email was sent after 3 episodes of the investigation had aired.
When contacted by The Feed, Oscar Wylee declined to respond to specific questions or comment.
Another brand had earlier this year sent Mia Wilde some freebies via The Right Fit, a platform that connects influencers and brands. In return, they expected posts promoting the goods. Last week, the company shared a photo on its Instagram feed of Mia Wilde holding one of its products.
Influencer fraud and the purchasing of fake likes and followers is not uncommon. According to Alex Frolov who heads up HypeAuditor, a company that audits influencer accounts, “25 per cent of Australian influencers are involved in fraudulent activity”.
He says this could mean millions of dollars is being wasted each year by advertisers who fail to vet the influencers they use.
As well as brands being duped by fake accounts, The Feed’s investigation exposed a culture of hidden advertising on Instagram, where influencers, brands and agencies are ignoring rules and regulations designed to protect consumers.
In particular, influencers and brands in Australia have been failing to clearly label sponsored content (or sponcon as it’s known in the industry) as advertising. This goes against industry guidelines and Instagram’s own policies that require sponsored posts to include tags like #ad or #sponsored, or the “Paid Partnership” label.
Since the investigation aired, regulators have been keen to show they’re taking action against influencers and brands doing the wrong thing.
In March, advertising regulator, Ad Standards, upheld a complaint against reality TV star/influencer Anna Heinreich and brand Runaway The Label over a sponsored post that wasn’t clearly labelled as such.
But it wasn’t until nearly a month after that decision, and only after widespread media reports, that the post was edited to include the “Paid Partnership” tag.
Ad Standards uses the Australian Association of National Advertisers code of ethics, updated in February, to judge complaints. It’s essentially a name and shame model where those found to be doing the wrong thing will have details of the decision put up on the Ad Standards website.
“The vast majority of advertisers are responsible advertisers,” Richard Bean, Ad Standards Executive Director, said in a statement to The Feed.
And according to the agency, most “advertisers support the advertising self-regulation system and amend or remove content found to breach the advertising Codes”.
But another case, upheld by Ad Standards involving influencer Rozalia Russian and brand Tom Ford, has led to a standoff with the influencer and brand claiming the post wasn’t actually sponsored.
The Heinrich and Russian cases highlight a problem with influencer marketing regulation that isn’t present in more traditional forms of advertising. Scroll through your Instagram feed and see if you can work out what’s an ad, and what isn’t. Does the influencer really own and love the swimsuit she’s wearing in that post, or is she wearing it because she was paid to promote the brand?
Influencers want their sponsored posts to look authentic - like they’re not ads. But Ad Standards can only act on complaints. This requires consumers to firstly identify that a post is an ad, before taking the next step to make a complaint. And that’s if the millions of Australians who use Instagram even know that Ad Standards exists.
Brands are also increasingly using micro-influencers, who have less than 100K followers, to promote their products. For every celebrity influencer, there are thousands of micro-influencers pimping goods to their smaller audiences. Ad Standards has not yet upheld a complaint against a micro-influencer.
Overseas, brands have been fined and influencers warned by consumer protection regulators for flouting advertising regulations that are aimed at protecting consumers. Australian regulator, the ACCC, can apply a penalty of up to $500,000 for an individual, or $10 million for a company, but they haven’t yet brought a case.
In a statement, an ACCC spokesperson said “we use a range of tools to encourage compliance with the ACL (Australian Consumer Law) by all traders, including influencers. This includes business and consumer education, and working closely with stakeholders and other agencies to improve compliance across an industry”.
Meanwhile, fake influencer Mia Wilde continues to attract interest from brands and comments from Instagram users who somehow haven’t worked out that she's not real.
It seems there’s a long way to go to improve not just compliance, but the basic literacy of businesses and consumers in the influencer marketing space.