Instagram Advertising: Do You Know It, When You See It?

Jun 24, 2019

In the photograph, Gretchen Altman is smiling, leaning back casually, a cup of coffee in hand — Hills Bros. Coffee, to be precise. It looks like a candid shot, but if you hit like, leave a comment, and tag a friend, you can get three different blends of brew, for free.

You've heard of influencers — social media celebrities with massive followings, who get paid to affect consumer tastes. Kim Kardashian, perhaps the most recognizable name in influencing, has more than 140 million Instagram followers and reportedly gets paid up to $1 million per post.

But Altman is part of a growing trend of "micro-influencers." She has a small following — around 6,000 on Instagram. Her going rate is $300 to $800 to promote something, which makes her much more affordable than a Kardashian.

And Altman does some posts in exchange for free goods, she says, as long as it's stuff she believes in. All this hasn't stopped her from working with major companies like Verizon or Walgreens.

Altman says that as a micro-influencer she has a much more intimate relationship with her followers than a big social media star.

"I'm just living a normal life and people relate to that," she says. "They just feel like I'm a friend of theirs."

And it works, says Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth In Advertising, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting consumers from deceptive ads and marketing.

"Consumers are very apt to buy things that they see being promoted on social media — especially by people they feel they have some authentic natural connection with," she says.

But this intimate relationship worries Patten and consumer rights groups. Several recent studies have found that young audiences are largely unable to understand when something is sponsored content.

In some cases, it's clear. When a big star like Jonathan Van Ness, of Netflix's Queer Eye, takes to Instagram to rave about toilet paper, the assumption is he's probably getting paid to do so. And Van Ness's posts are clearly labeled as ads, with the caption #advertisement or #sponsoredcontent.

But what happens when an everyday person with just a couple thousand followers takes to social media to extol the virtues of a product? The motivations are not so clear cut. "The problem with a lot of these social media posts is that you don't know whether it's an ad or not," Patten says.

She wants transparency in social media advertising. Whether it's that nutritional shake, or that tooth whitener that will make you look like a Cheshire Cat, Patten wants influencers to be clear that they are getting paid to recommend it.

Ultimately, consumer advocates say the buck stops with the Federal Trade Commission. But several watchdog groups say the agency has done little in terms of enforcement.

"There are laws that say what influencers and companies can and cannot do," Patten says. "Unfortunately, the FTC does not have the resources to police social media platforms to the extent necessary."

An FTC spokesperson referred us to the agency's guidelines, which say if people are getting paid to promote, "then a disclosure is appropriate."

Altman is diligent about using those hashtags. She loves what she does and sees it as a business, but she doesn't necessarily want to be a social media celebrity.

"With social media being so integrated into our everyday lives, we have this unique opportunity that I don't think anyone has ever had before where we can each be our own brand," Altman says.

For many, the very idea of everyday people becoming brands sounds like some nightmare capitalist dystopia.

Saleem Alhabash, who teaches public relations and social media at Michigan State University, says there are bigger implications to this. When the lines between what is real life and what is marketing get blurred, it changes people's behaviors.

"You always need to be doing something exciting," Alhabash says. "Taking pictures of your food, taking pictures of the sunset. Where it becomes so important for people to be liked and appreciated, that they have to live another person's life."

Like many people, he wonders: What are we buying into when we're all trying to sell something?

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today on All Tech Considered, living in a world where anyone can be a social media influencer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Influencing took off years ago, with reality stars such as the Kardashians leading the way. Now companies are hiring regular people to post about themselves on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. This is raising alarm amongst consumer rights groups, as NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: In the photograph, Gretchen Altman is smiling, leaning back casually, a cup of coffee in hand - Hills Bros. Coffee, to be precise. It looks like a candid shot, but if you hit like, leave a comment and tag a friend, you can get three different blends of brew for free.

GRETCHEN ALTMAN: They approached me, and I sent them my rate sheet. I sent them an invoice. And we agreed on a set number of posts.

GARSD: Altman's is going rate is $300 to $800 to promote something. She does some posts in exchange for free goods, she says, as long as it's stuff she believes in. Altman doesn't have the 140 million Instagram followers of Kim Kardashian. She has around 6,000. That makes her a micro-influencer.

ALTMAN: I'm just living a normal life, and people relate to that. They just feel like I'm a friend of theirs.

GARSD: Bonnie Patten, the executive director of Truth In Advertising, says...

BONNIE PATTEN: It works. Consumers are very apt to buy things that they see being promoted on social media, especially by people they feel they have some sort of authentic, natural connection with.

GARSD: This worries Patten and consumer rights groups. Several recent studies have found that young audiences are largely unable to understand when something is sponsored content.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

JONATHAN VAN NESS: Do you know a woman who needs a brand-new wardrobe all year long?

GARSD: In this Instagram post, Jonathan Van Ness, star of Netflix's "Queer Eye," is excited about a clothing rental service.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

VAN NESS: We're going to try on clothes. We're doing the most. We're doing everything. Love you, guys. Happy Holidays. Yas (ph).

GARSD: In this case, Van Ness' post is clearly labeled as an advertisement. But what happens when it's an everyday person with just a couple thousand followers?

PATTEN: The problem with a lot of these social media posts is that you don't know whether it's an ad or not.

GARSD: What Patten wants is transparency in social media advertising. That nutritional shake, that tooth whitener that will make you look like a Cheshire cat - Patten wants influencers to be clear that they're getting paid to recommend it, which means including the hashtag #advertisement or #sponsoredcontent.

Ultimately, consumer advocates say the buck stops with the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, which several watchdog groups say has done little in terms of enforcement.

PATTEN: Unfortunately, the FTC does not have the resources to police social media platforms to the extent necessary.

GARSD: NPR reached out to the FTC, who referred us to their guidelines. If you're getting paid to promote, quote, "then a disclosure is appropriate," end quote.

To be clear, Gretchen Altman is diligent about using those hashtags. She loves what she does and sees it as a business. She doesn't necessarily want to be a social media celebrity.

ALTMAN: With social media being so integrated into our everyday lives, we have this unique opportunity that I don't think anyone has ever had before, where we can each be our own brand.

GARSD: For many, the very idea of everyday people becoming brands sounds like a nightmare capitalist dystopia. Professor Saleem Alhabash teaches public relations and social media at Michigan State University. He says there are bigger implications to this. When the lines between what is real life and what is marketing get blurred, it changes people's behaviors.

SALEEM ALHABASH: You always need to be doing something exciting - taking pictures of your food, taking pictures of your feet by the beach. It becomes so important for people to be liked and appreciated that they always have to almost live another person's life.

GARSD: He, like many, wonders, what are we buying into when we're all trying to sell something? Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF '80'S CHILD'S "I CANT GO 4 THAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.