Athletes are increasingly monetizing their social media channels. Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo, who currently has the most Instagram followers at 254 million, can make $1.5 million per Instagram post (GQ, 2019). While most athletes cannot compete with Ronaldo’s digital following, the ability to incorporate this lucrative supplemental revenue stream in addition to league contracts is not uncommon. However, despite the abundance of sponsored posts and partnership related income, athletes have largely failed to consistently disclose their financial relationships with the brands they are paid to promote. Thus, fans are led to believe that their favorite athletes are not commercially tied to these brands and are instead posting about them because they genuinely like the products and services that they offer. In many countries in the world, some laws prevent consumers from being taken advantage of in such a manner, however, few pieces of legislation directly address social media advertising. This allows athletes and their marketing teams to disregard the general consumer protection laws. The described relationship between brands, influencers, and consumers is known as surreptitious advertising.
Surreptitious advertising seeks to change a consumer’s perception of a particular brand. As social media activity continues to boom across several different platforms worldwide, brands are increasing their advertising budgets to take advantage of these mediums. The amount of money circulating through the digital ecosystem has made being a social media influencer a viable profession. Anuja Arora, a professor at the Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, describes social media influencers as “an individual who has established credibility within a specific field” (Arora, 2019). Consumers will listen and react according to what influencers have to say because they trust that influencers genuinely know what they are talking about. To maximize the returns of an advertising campaign, many brands are now partnering with social media influencers to help promote their products. However, by not disclosing partnership deals within sponsored posts, social media influencers are pretending to be consumers when they are in fact paid carriers for advertisements. Such an act breaks the trust that consumers have with influences and is why countries around the world are beginning to pass legislation to inhibit this exploitation.
Why do brands and influencers use surreptitious advertising?
The transition from traditional advertising platforms to social media outlets is the result of a shift in consumer brand perception. Consumers are now more likely to trust the opinions of other consumers than the information that companies feed to them about their products. In response to this shift, companies targeted social media influencers to become advertising middlemen. Influencers are uniquely capable of inciting the benefits of word of mouth advertising without disclosing their financial associations with brands. It is only when a consumer is already knowledgeable on either advertising techniques or on the product itself that they can pick up on surreptitious advertising. These phenomena are known as persuasion knowledge and resistance. Persuasion knowledge is a consumer’s ability to recognize an advertisement as an advertisement while resistance is a negative response generated from this recognition. Consumers are likely to increase their persuasion knowledge when a brand visibly discloses their advertisement. Furthermore, should a consumer recognize an advertisement that was not disclosed by a brand, their resistance to the advertisement would grow as well.
Surreptitious advertising exists to circumvent a consumer’s resistance to traditional forms of advertising. While an advertisement may at first seem like a genuine display of product affinity by an influencer, it is generally a fabrication aiming to maintain or enhance consumer engagement while generating revenue for the influencer and moving sales for a brand. Essentially, surreptitious advertising seeks to remove resistance from the equation entirely. Surreptitious advertising can prevent consumers from reacting negatively to an ad as it is only when the consumer gains knowledge of the persuasion that they can resist it. The intensity of resistance increases when consumers discover an undisclosed advertisement. But resistance is also present even when an advertisement is properly communicated. This zero-sum game is why brands utilize surreptitious advertising as it provides them with the best opportunity to preserve a positive brand attitude and get value out of their investment in influencers.
The implications of surreptitious advertising and how to become compliant with surreptitious advertising laws
Athletes and brands that currently have financial agreements must become compliant in the near future to avoid any potential lawsuits. Most countries lack social media-specific advertising laws but because social media is a relatively new platform for advertising, legislation on this medium should be expected to grow with time. Thus, as social media ages, it will become imperative that athletes and brands rework their marketing strategies to be compliant with emerging surreptitious advertising laws. The high rate of surreptitious advertising suggests that branding on social media will require a major overhaul in the future. Athletes, regardless of their following, must become proactive by learning to post branded content that is compliant before they are faced with legal consequences.
There are three ways that social media influences can be compliant with typical surreptitious advertising legislation. The first is to describe the nature of the partnership within the caption of the post. If done correctly, this can even improve the reaction that consumers have to an advertisement.
The next way to become compliant is to use the “paid promotion” feature that Instagram has. Instagram is the platform where surreptitious advertising takes place at the highest rate due to the visually focused content that the networking service lends itself to. The “paid promotion” function adds an additional layer of transparency to branded social media posts that do not distract from the content of the post.
Lastly, influencers can insert a “#ad” tag within the caption of a post. For posts with longer captions, it is best to have the tag before the description so that viewers do not have to click on “More…” to see that the post is indeed an advertisement. Any of these three methods will make a post compliant with surreptitious advertising law. These best practices may only take a few seconds, but the implications of the influencer-brand-consumer relationship can be significant.