Influencer and Advertising: a problematic relationship

Also available in Italiano
Time to read: 6 min

The relationship between influencers and advertising is one of the most interesting topic of the recent years, and one to which many operators in the sector are devoting energy and money.

In this article we will return to talk about the legal problems that influencer marketing makes it necessary to analyze.

There are many problematic profiles that can arise from the activity of influencers, pursuant to a fundamental principle of advertising discipline: any form of commercial communication and/or advertising must clearly be recognizable as such.

It is known that influencers, thanks to the reputation they have on social network, Instagram among all, are often paid to post pictures that portray them along with products given for free companies that have sponsored the post itself. The situation described can well be considered as a real advertising activity, considering that there is an individual that receive remuneration for promoting a product to the community. However, in the sponsored post there is no mention of the fact that the activity carried out by influencers is a genuine and effective advertising activity: the influencers simply post the picture and describe the product , obviously in a positive way, as if it were “a private story in the style of Instagram” (injunction of the Italian Advertising Self-Regulatory Institute (IAP) Control Committee no. 57/2018).

It is certainly on the basis of these considerations that, in the last two months, we have assisted to a real crackdown in the IAP, the Italian Advertising Self-Regulatory Institute (“Istituto di Auto-disciplina Pubblicitaria). The IAP Control Committee notified many influencers, as well as the companies producing the good displayed in the sponsored posts, injunctions aimed at inhibiting the publication of certain posts released by the influencers themselves.

The common element of all these injunctions is the criticism of a behavior that showed a purely advertising activity as if it were a spontaneous choice of the influencer. This circumstance leads to a situation in which, using the words of the IAP injunction No 61/2018 of 14 June 2018, there are “communication conveying eminently promotional content of the product and the brand in question, that is however not sufficiently explicit and therefore not immediately recognisable to the public”.

In fact, what is being contested in the above-mentioned injunctions, but also in others, such as in the injunction no. 51/2018, is the violation of art. 7 of the Italian Marketing Communication Self-Regulation Code (“Codice di auto-disciplina pubblicitaria). The code is the source of the above-mentioned principle that states that any form of commercial communication must always be recognisable as such. Furthermore, the Code says that “in the means and forms of commercial communication in which contents and information of other kinds are disseminated, commercial communication must be clearly distinguished by means of appropriate measures“.

The measures taken by the Control Committee involve not only influencers, but also companies, as the latter actually benefit from an activity that can be considered a form of surreptitious advertising.

Please, allow me a note.

Take for example the injunction no. 50/2018, regarding two Instagram’s posts of the influencer Chiara Nasti, that portrayed her with products marked with the trademark “Sunsilk”: having noted that the two posts of Nasti’s Instagram profile violated the above-mentioned art. 7 of the Italian Marketing Communication Self-Regulation Code, the injunction states the essential need for  “transparency of communications“, that allows an effective distinction, and not a merely formal one, of promotional communications from any other type of communication.

Analyzing the guidelines elaborated on this matter by the IAP, the so-called “Digital Chart”, it results that it is considered compliant for the purpose of the recognition of an advertising communication as such, that a post on Instagram or on another social network presents the hashtag #advertising, or even simply the hashtag #ad.

In this respect, the IAP’s guidelines may leave a little baffled. In fact, while recognizing that the choice in question is an attempt to mediate between the need to protect the consumer and the activity of influencer, it is legitimate to doubt about the effectiveness of the hashtag #ad. As a matter of fact, it is reasonable to doubt that the hashtag #ad, written under a picture on a social network, is in itself suitable to make it clear to the user and to the average consumer that the post ha an advertising message. In fact, it can be assumed that many users do not know that the term “ad” is the abbreviation for “advertising”, especially considering that the average user of influencers is represented by young people aged between 14 and 18 years. In a nutshell, the hashtag #ad would be able to “disguise” the advertising activity.

On the other hand, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM – Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato) and some German judges (and the German legal system is known to be particularly attentive to new technologies law) also reached these conclusions. In this respects, it is worth reading the Case 13 U 53/17 of the Celle Higher Regional Court, that concerns to precisely the hashtag #ad and reaches conclusions similar to those mentioned above.

It should also be noted that, so far, it has been mentioned the Italian Marketing Communication Self-Regulation Code, a regulatory text issued by the IAP, whose injunctions or decisions bind exclusively the companies adhering to its system of self-regulation.

However, it is clear that, in cases such as those described above, is applicable a specific Italian legislation, the so-called Consumer Code (Legislative Decree no. 206/2005 – Codice del Consumo), Furthermore, surreptitious advertising violates the prohibition of misleading and unfair commercial practices, as stated in various articles of the Consumer Code.

The consequences are relevant, because the Consumer Code and its Implementing Regulations implicate the intervention of the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) or the Italian Regulatory Authority for Communications (Agcom – Autorità Garante per le Comunicazioni), both having sanctioning powers toward any person (with particular reference to financial sanctions).

What arises from this brief examination is that this phenomenon is particularly interesting and widespread throughout the world.

The author of this post is Elena Carpani.

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