The dog days of August used to feature a flurry of articles about the blockbuster September issues of fashion magazines, comparing the number of ads and overall heft of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and InStyle. Analysis of their late-summer thud seems perfunctory now (if not a little dated) given the present cult of independent lifestyle and fashion personalities on social media; their output's metabolism is measured minute by minute in clicked hearts and breathless comments.
Today, the bigger, more interesting data would be on juggernauts like The Blonde Salad; the blog's founder, Chiara Ferragni, has four million Instagram followers and counting. Her editorial output is harder to measure, given that posts from 'social brands' often occupy the space between unbiased opinion and advertising.
So who's watching these influencers? Everyone, it seems. Yet no one in Canada has bothered to make local personalities disclose the details of arrangements made with the brands they feature in their posts – not even agencies established to protect consumers from deceptive endorsement practices.
When it first issued regulations addressing the advent of digital media in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission – a U.S. federal agency that ostensibly protects consumers from things like fraud and deception in advertising (and has the power to issue fines) – extended its watchdog purview to cover social media and blogs. The umbrella guidelines opened wider in 2013, when a major update was made to the rules, requiring users of sites such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram to provide disclosure of sponsorship; it also recommends the use of clear hashtag language such as #sponsored or #ad in the original post or tweet. In the U.K., the Advertising Standards Authority fills a similar role.
In Canada, however, there is no direct equivalent to the FTC. The closest counterpart is the Competition Bureau, an independent law-enforcement agency that applies the government's Competition Act on behalf of consumers to everything from bogus telemarketing prize schemes to corporate mergers to the regulation of clothing labels. But no Canadian law or agency specifically covers disclosure of a commercial relationship between digital influencers and advertisers online, let alone enforces it.
There is the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, which the industry uses to regulate itself: Agencies field complaints and take them to a council for review. The Code was published in 1963, which makes it sound more antiquated than it is. In fact, the not-for-profit's guidelines could well be used to oversee the changing media landscape. A quick call referred my inquiries to the clauses covering authenticity and general rules of disclosure. Clause number two (of 14) concerns disguised advertising techniques and states that "no advertisement shall be presented in a format or style that conceals its commercial intent." Clause number seven is also relevant to testimonials, endorsements or representation of opinion or preference. All good practices, in principle (especially for maintaining trust between the blogger and the all-important follower who's made them what they are), but they still aren't explicitly the law here.
Last month, in yet another incendiary article profiling how much money social-media stars earn (this time in the Sunday London Times), only one of the many bloggers profiled – American Danielle Bernstein, 23, of WeWoreWhat – went on record detailing the fees she commands per post (anywhere from £3,000 to £10,000). Her candour is refreshing, but it isn't enough. Scroll through any popular social-media feed and most are often in flagrant violation of the guidelines set by agencies such as the FTC. The Times article ended in a frustrating figurative shrug, with a half-hearted justification from one blogger that putting a disclosure hashtag on a post would make it less pretty to look at. The term "editorial sincerity" was bandied, as was the laughable idea of self-determined rules of integrity and self-policing.
I'm not being churlish about social-media success, but the fact that I'm both curious and confused about this shadow economy makes me wonder how savvy consumers are about it. I can't remember the last time I read #sponsored or #ad at the bottom of a post. Posts seeded with complementary samples (or a sudden glut of brand-crafted hashtags) might jump out at viewers who've worked in consumer publishing jobs, but the transgression might not be obvious to the average follower.
One question to address is whether, until there's real money changing hands between brands and consumers on these platforms, the consumer needs – or even wants – to know when a brand is currying favour.
At the moment, Instagram doesn't support the sort of hotlinks that would allow followers to click on products they like in order to buy them, so the site is still a space that only indirectly sells goods through brand awareness and influence-peddling. But shoppability seems inevitable, especially because brands have already found creative workarounds.
Last fall Michael Kors debuted the #InstaKors feature that leverages users' "likes": You sign up on the brand's website with your email and Instagram handle. Then, every time you double-click on an image in Instagram, you receive direct shoppable links in your email inbox.
Even when money isn't changing hands, there is still an exchange of what might be called 'consideration.' The area is not grey, and it's also not new. Brands have given famous people clothing samples to wear, and product to unofficially tout as quid pro quo, since the dawn of modern celebrity in the 1910s. Couturiere Lucile supplied actors such as Billie Burke with clothing, gratis, in exchange for promotion in films, personal appearances and exposure in fan magazines. In an age of influencers on wide-reaching digital platforms, before we even get to the issue about what constitutes disclosure, we have yet to figure out what constitutes a "material connection." There are new rules of engagement that aren't, strictly speaking, advertising. Does paying for a blogger's trip to exotic climes in exchange for a positive review count as 'consideration'? Are 'no-strings' gifts of expensive clothing just gifts? And when will this really start to matter?
Surely the tipping point will come as social-media platforms make it easier for brands to sell products directly through their sites. In the meantime, those who should be most worried about the lack of disclosure laws (and pro-active disclosure) are the independent bloggers themselves. That aforementioned "editorial sincerity" is the foundation of their relationship with followers. And integrity is much harder to fake than sincerity.