Anyone who spends time on Instagram knows that celebrities are doing #ads, and also that there are lots of times a celebrity is clearly doing an ad but isn’t really admitting it, which is kind of shady.
But there’s never been an attempt to actually find out how much #spon is out there – and how much of it follows the FTC’s guidelines for disclosing sponsored content. Then in May the marketing firm Mediakix issued a report on how many advertisements each of the top 50 Instagram accounts post per month, and how many of those are FTC compliant. What they found is that 32 of the top 50 celebrities did some sort of sponsored post. And of those posts, 93% don’t meet the FTC’s guidelines.
How The Numbers Were Counted
Mediakix won’t publish the actual list of Instagram ads (they work with some of the brands), but the company did allow BuzzFeed News to view its list so we could verify their calculations.
First, they took the top 50 celebrities on Instagram. That list isn’t exactly a secret; you can see it on Wikipedia (just take out anything that’s not a person, like @instagram or @natgeo) It’s mostly entertainers like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Gigi Hadid, Katy Perry, a few international soccer players, and of course, the Kardashians. There are some celebrities who did NOT post any ads, like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Adele, Lebron James, and Emma Watson.
Next, they looked at all their posts (no Stories) over a four-week period in April 2017. They counted how many of those posts were ads – 152 total ads. Then, they counted how many of those ads followed proper FTC guidelines for advertisements. Only 9 out of 152 were FTC compliant.
Here's how confusing to a normal person it can get. Notice here how Gigi Hadid uses #ad for her Reebok sponsorship (FTC compliant)
But in this very similar post, she just tags @reebok (not FTC compliant):
What FTC Compliant Means
In a very general sense, it should be clear and apparent to the average person that a celebrity has a “material connection” – is either getting paid cash or was given free swag – to the brand.
Last month, the FTC sent letters to over 90 brands and celebrities who post spon-con to remind them of the guidelines. This was a big-deal move for the FTC, which hadn’t ever sent these types of preemptive “educational” letters before. In these letters, they cracked down on certain types of half-assed disclosures, like #sp instead of #sponsored.
Here’s what they want to see:
Clear disclosure like #ad or #sponsored (#sp instead of #sponsored is NOT OK)
No hiding the disclosure at the end of a long caption, which gets cut off after 3 lines in Instagram, or in a #forest #of #hashtags #where #no #one #will #notice #ad
No using #partner – most people don’t know what that means.
No simply tagging the sponsor
So, only 7% of the ads it reviewed followed these rules, according to Mediakix.
What Counts As An “Ad”?
First of all, they excluded any posts that were movie promotions – for example, The Rock posting a still from his new movie Baywatch. Instagram ads sort of exist on a spectrum. From most to least sketchy:
Straightforward pay-to-post ads. Think diet teas or tooth whiteners – often these are one time ads.
A longterm spokesperson partnership, like a pro athlete and Nike, or a model being the face of CoverGirl. This includes making their own products for a brand, like Rihanna’s new collection with Puma shoes.
Small freebies like a few lipsticks or a pair of sneakers.
Expensive freebies like Lady Gaga getting a $10,000+ Airbnb rental, a free private airplane ride, or a fancy designer dress worth thousands of dollars.
Mediakix collected 152 Instagram posts from the top 50 celebrities that appear to be ads. BuzzFeed went through these 152 and categorized them by what flavor of #sponsored they seem to be.
Of the handful of FTC-compliant posts where the celeb used the hashtag #ad or #sponsored, all but one of these were for those “pay to post” ads – the most straightforward types. For the long term partnerships, all but ONE of the ads (Gigi Hadid & Reebok) were breaking FTC guidelines.
These broader, long term partnerships that celebrities have with brands – especially fashion or athletic wear – are the most frequent violators of the FTC policy.
Small freebies are also often not FTC compliant – it’s a blurring of the line between “advertising” and “publicity”. It’s very common in the PR world, particularly fashion, to send free stuff to celebrities in hopes that they’ll wear or use it. For a celebrity who gets paid $100,000 for an Instagram ad, thanking a company for a small brand for a free lip gloss might not feel like an “ad”, even though the FTC sees it that way.
The report shows what we all knew intuitively: that celebrities, even the super popular ones with managers and lawyers who know better, are doing ads and not disclosing it.