Social media stars under fire for flouting rules on advertising

Advertising Standards Authority launches roll-call of offenders who fail to to make clear paid-for endorsement

Social media stars Jodie Marsh, Chloe Khan, Lucy Mecklenburgh and Chloe Ferry have been named and shamed by the UK advertising watchdog for repeatedly flouting social media advertising rules, and face being fined or having their posts deleted.

The Instagram stars have become the first influencers to be named on a dedicated roll call of offenders launched by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA added that if they did not start to follow the rules, further sanctions could include online ads shaming them,the removal of their posts or financial penalties.

The ASA issued a final warning to 122 UK-based Instagram influencers in March, putting them on notice that they would face sanctions if they did not stick to rules regarding posts that promote products for brands.

Under the UK advertising code, promotional posts must clearly indicate that they are paid-for endorsements, typically using a hashtag such as #ad or #spon, short for advertising or sponsored.

The ASA was scathing in its assessment of the behaviour of the stars, who have appeared in shows including The Only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore and X Factor. It said they have repeatedly failed to disclose when their Instagram posts are in fact ads for third parties.

Chloe Khan’s Instagram profile.
Chloe Khan’s Instagram profile. Photograph: Instagram/PA

“They were all contacted by our compliance team and asked to provide an assurance that they would include clear and upfront ad labels in their advertising posts,” the ASA said. “They either failed to provide that assurance in the first instance or subsequently reneged on it.”

Examples of rule breaking include Chloe Ferry posting an ad for Debt Slayers, which promoted a scheme to write off up to 85% of debt, and Jodie Marsh pushing a variety of nutrition supplements.

“We prefer to work with influencers and brands to help them stick to the rules,” said Guy Parker, chief executive at the ASA. “The first influencers to be named on this list have been given every opportunity to treat people fairly about their ads.”

The influencers will now become the first to be added to a new non-compliance website thatpublishes a roster of those who have broken the rules. The ASA said that shamed influencers will stay on the webpage for at least three months and would also be “subject to a period of enhanced monitoring spot checks”.

The ASA said influencers that continue to break the non-disclosure rules could be referred to Trading Standards or the Competition and Markets Authority, which has the ability to impose fines. The watchdog said it could also work with social media companies “to have their content removed”.

“It’s not difficult,” said Parker. “Be up front and clear when posts and stories are ads. If this doesn’t bring about the changes we expect, we won’t hesitate to consider further sanctions.”

Lucy Mecklenburgh’s Instagram profile.
Lucy Mecklenburgh’s Instagram profile. Photograph: Instagram/PA

The ASA’s warning to influencers in March followed a spot check of the 122 UK-based Instagram influencers’ posts over a three-week period last September. The ASA examined more than 24,000 posts and found that while nearly a quarter of them were ads, only 35% of those were clearly labelled as such. The ASA said the level of non-compliance with the rules was “unacceptable” and put all the influencers, and a number of brands, on notice that they could face action.

The ASA has previously issued rulings against influencers including Emily Canham, in its first censure of a post on TikTok. Canham, who has more than 700,000 followers on TikTok, has been profiled by several newspapers and magazines, because of her marketing skills and her relationship with Busted band member James Bourne. 

Others to fall foul of the ad rules include the former Love Island contestant Luke Mabbott and Zoë Sugg, a fashion and shopping blogger who has also written a novel, Girl Online.

The ad watchdog said that it experienced a 55% increase in complaints about social media influencers last year, rising from 1,979 in 2019 to 3,144 in 2020. More than 60% of the complaints last year were about postings on Instagram.

In October, Instagram said it intended to crack down on social media influencers and celebrities in the UK who break rules regarding advertising disclosures, following an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority. In 2019, the CMA secured formal commitments from 16 celebrities, including Alexa Chung and Ellie Goulding, to clearly state if they have been paid or receive any gifts or loans of profits when making posts on Instagram.


Mark Sweney

The GuardianTramp

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