Running a sponsored advertising campaign on social media – how do you avoid falling foul of the ASA?

Earlier this year, the ASA dismissed a complaint about a Twitter based advertising campaign run by Mars. Under the campaign, Jordan and Rio Ferdinand, tweeted a series of out of character messages (including Jordan tweeting about world economics) culminating in the following tweet:

You’re not you when you’re hungry @snickersUk #hungry #spon …

…and a photo of the celebrity holding a Snickers bar.

Fast forward a couple of months, and last week the ASA upheld a complaint about a Twitter based advertising campaign run by Nike in January of this year (around about the same time as the Mars campaign). This campaign featured the following tweet from Wayne Rooney:

My resolution – to start the year as a champion, and finish it as a champion…#makeitcount

…and this from Jake Wilshere:

In 2012, I will come back for my club – and be ready for my country. #makeitcount

So why was one complaint upheld and the other dismissed?

The ASA’s rules
The relevant section of the ASA’s CAP code is section 2, which states the following:

  • Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such.
  • Unsolicited e-mail marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as marketing communications without the need to open them (see rule 10.6).
  • Marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer or for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession; marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if that is not obvious from the context.
  • Marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications; for example, by heading them “advertisement feature.

The second requirement makes it clear that the statement identifying the message as an advert can’t be hidden in, say, a webpage linked to from a tweet, and needs to appear in the body of the tweet itself. Nike argued that it had satisfied the “obviously identifiable” requirement by including a link to a Nike url and the “#makeitcount” hashtag, which was the tagline for a new Nike advertising campaign. Nike also argued that the two players were well known for being sponsored by Nike, and therefore their followers on Twitter were unlikely to be misled by the relationship between the footballers and Nike.

The ASA dismissed these arguments.

It considered that Twitter users will follow many users and will scroll through messages quickly. The ASA also considered that Twitter followers would not necessarily have been aware of the “Make it Count” ad campaign, and would not therefore associate the #makeitcount hashtag with Nike. The test under the Code is not just that the advert be “identifiable” but “obviously identifiable”. In the absence of anything obvious in the tweets to indicate that they were Nike marketing commuications, the ASA held that the Tweets breached the Code.

The Mars approach
In its decision on the Nike case, the ASA gave the example of the inclusion of a “#ad” hashtag as a way of identifying the tweet as a marketing communication.

This is exactly what Mars did in the Snickers tweets issuued by Ferdinand and Jordan, which each contained the “#spon” hashtag. In that case, the ASA accepted Mars’s argument that this was sufficiently prominent to make the tweet obviously identifiable as a marketing communication.

Whilst both of these cases involved major international brands and celebrities, the ASA’s rulings are relevant to all organisations regardless of size.

Social media is becoming an increasingly important marketing tool. If you are planning to promote your business using third party endorsements on social media then it’s essential that your communications comply with the CAP Code.

Under the CAP Code, it is the advertiser (not the endorser) that is responsible. It’s therefore also important that you either pre-approve the communications or ensure that your endorser has been given clear guidance on the format of messages being issued. Whilst there might not be much space for regulatory compliance wording in a 140 character message, as the ASA’s latest decision shows all it takes is three characters: #ad.

PS Just to rub salt in the wound, Rooney didn’t make even manage to achieve his resolution, with Manchester City taking the title. But Nike will be happy – the tweet got a quite ridiculous 2,200 retweets.

2 Responses to “Running a sponsored advertising campaign on social media – how do you avoid falling foul of the ASA?”

  1. 1 Mark June 29, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I never knew you could get into so much trouble for sponsored tweets. People tweet advertisements everyday for ulterior motives, I’m not sure how targeting a few footballers is doing any good..

    • 2 martinsloan June 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

      @Mark – thanks for your comment.

      The reason for the rules is to ensure that consumers can readily differentiate between freely given personal endorsements and those that are done in return for payment (and therefore less genuine). A freely given personal endorsement can be immensely valuable to a brand, particularly where it is given by a well known celebrity.

      The rules don’t stop consumers (or footballers) from using Twitter to endorse particular products or service – they just require that if the person is being paid to do so that this is made clear to the consumer. For example. I don’t need to add “#ad” or “#spon” to a tweet saying “I love my iPhone”, because Apple isn’t paying me anything to say that.

      In old media, the obvious comparison is the advertorial features in newspapers, where a company pays the newspaper to write a feature about the company’s goods or services. As the journalist isn’t freely giving his opinion these are usually headed up “advertorial” or “sponsored feature” to differentiate them from other (freely written) articles and features in the paper.

      PS I don’t think that the ASA has a particular issue with footballers. I suspect it just so happens that the high profile nature of footballers (and their multiple sponsorship deals) means that they were amongst the first to be used by their sponsors for this sort of marketing.

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