“Ads on blogs and Twitter, for instance, cannot be masked as personal opinion, editorial content, or a casual post” (Plan To Plug Loopholes In Online Ad Rules, Jessica Lim).
Moves to plug gaps in the best practice codes for advertising in the online world – “ads on blogs and Twitter, for instance, cannot be masked as personal opinion, editorial content, or a casual post” (ST, Dec. 8) – will not stop transgressions. After all profit-driven advertisers, cognisant that content marketing in the form of paid reviews or masked updates on social media usually brings in higher revenue as well as the growing aversion to advertisements, will find loopholes or means to get around these “best practice codes”.
Advertisers and their “influencers” who are used to passing off paid advertisements as personal opinions, if asked to declare upfront that meals or hotel stays – for example – were sponsored, could attempt to make these declarations less conspicuous: including them in a sea of hashtags, adding a small banner in the feature image, or only mentioning them at the end of a post. In this vein, the intent is to make it seem as if the content was not paid for.
Of course, it is the responsibility of the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore to promote ethical and truthful advertising, but the advisory council will find it difficult to: first, define or specify reasonable guidelines, especially on the placement of declarations; and second, to balance differing perspectives. One of the writers ST spoke to insisted that “there is no need to [list relationships with restaurant owners, in cases where … a restaurant owner is a friend]”, though other advertisers may not share the same opinion.
It therefore falls on the consumers and the companies which engage these advertisers to discern the authenticity and quality of the online advertisements. Consumers have become savvier, and with endeavours in media literacy they will also develop necessary scepticism when encountering such content. As a result, consumers should shun advertisers who are known for breaches of trust. Already, there is greater awareness of how “likes” and “followers” can be bought to create false impressions, and the artificiality of personalities.
For the companies which engage these advertisers, familiarity with online marketing and its impact should be built. Engagement cannot be assumed, and knowing the difference between concepts such as cost per mille or impression, cost per click, and cost per action or engagement can help these companies calculate their return on investment. The online landscape is more crowded and attention spans of consumers are much shorter, so against this background companies should also demand more rigorous evidence from their advertisers.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.