It’s about time TikTok influencers were made to follow the rules

Laveta Brigham

As Lockdown 2 approaches and we scrabble for daily, Covid-safe activities which keep us sane and entertained, I’m reminded of how I finally succumbed to the joys of TikTok in the depths of the first lockdown. I had a pile of paperbacks on my bedside table but, after a day […]

As Lockdown 2 approaches and we scrabble for daily, Covid-safe activities which keep us sane and entertained, I’m reminded of how I finally succumbed to the joys of TikTok in the depths of the first lockdown.

I had a pile of paperbacks on my bedside table but, after a day of combining work with homeschooling a five-year-old and stopping a two-year-old from climbing up the radiators, I found myself reading the same page of Three Men in A Boat ten times over.

TikTok, with its stream of 15-second dance memes and lip-syncing routines was like a balm for the soul. I watched the Malone family from Gogglebox dance in their garden, Gordon Ramsay and his daughter doing skits, and Dame Judi Dench guessing the punchlines to her grandson’s jokes. I saw the same dance (to the song Blinding Lights by The Weeknd) interpreted by vicars, builders and hospital staff in their scrubs. I even tried it myself, although the less said about that the better.

The app is hugely and globally popular, with one billion downloads, and an estimated 3.7 million active users in the UK alone. And it’s because it’s so popular that I welcome the news that the Advertising Standards Agency has made its first ruling over a TikTok influencer.

Emily Canham, a 23-year-old who posts make-up tutorials, skits and personal updates, has nearly 700,000 followers on TikTok (and more than a million on YouTube). The ASA today rapped her for a video she published in the summer, in which she used ghd hair straighteners and shared a discount code for the brand with her followers but didn’t mark it up as an advert. Though ghd’s parent company Jemella, argued the post did not form part of the commercial agreement they had with her, and Emily’s management team also said she did not receive any payment or commission for that particular post, the ASA ruled that it was still a post encouraging people to buy a product she was paid to promote, and for this reason she breached the rules by not flagging it as sponsored (normally done by using the hashtag #spon or #ad) to her fans.

In reality, this ruling makes little material difference to Canham. She’s deleted the post – but if today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper, then social media posts are practically yesterday’s; it’s rare you’d scroll back through someone’s old posts without reason.

The ASA’s ruling matters because it’s only fair that TikTok is subjected to the same regulation as other social media platforms. I’ve managed social media campaigns for brands on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and the hoops you have to jump through are plentiful. One client was an American growth company that was so wary of the rules we had to have lengthy calls with the ASA’s advisors (who were all extremely polite and helpful) to make sure there wasn’t a hashtag out of place. They advise you to flag up an #ad at the beginning of the post, whether that be in the first few seconds of a film or the first two sentences of a photo caption. A follower should know it’s paid-for content before they engage with it, either by clicking or watching. 

As with all kinds of publishing, the first duty you have is to the reader (or follower or viewer), and if they don’t recognise something as paid-for – and research shows that they often don’t – they may be unfairly influenced. With 700,000 followers, Canham has more of an audience than most national newspapers and is probably making a good income from it. Why shouldn’t she be held to account in the same way?

The fear was put into Instagram influencers in 2018, when the ASA published new guidelines for sponsored content, and upheld complaints against several reality TV stars for not being clear enough with their product placement. So compliant are they of the rules that, in the past week alone, I’ve seen a post tagged with ‘Gift from a PR and I had no obligation to post’, a beauty influencer flagging that her wedding dress was not a freebie, and a fashion blogger and designer posting a photo of her new pyjama designs and tagging it as ‘Own brand ad’.

There’s an informal code too. If you like an influencer and their content makes you think or laugh, you don’t see their sponsored work as evidence of them selling out; you respect that their accounts are their workspaces and that they have to make money somehow. Just as with adverts in a newspaper, you understand why the posts are there, and you might even be pleased to know about a new range or special offer. If you really like the influencer, you might even make an effort to like or engage with their post, to help them get good results for their client. 

I don’t think that Canham’s followers would have flinched at the site of an #ad on that hair straighteners TikTok video; they would have used the code regardless – 20 per cent off is not to be sniffed at. In fact, it’s a shame it wasn’t flagged properly to start with, as maybe I would buck the trend and scroll back to find it…

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