Consumer goods colossus Unilever, which is a force in global advertising, has taken a stand against the use of social media "influencers".
Influencers, who often buy followers on sites like Facebook and Instagram, can be paid to write about products - sometimes in the form of celebrity endorsements. But they typically do not reveal that they receive money. Unilever has called on the marketing industry to stop working with them, and it laid out steps to distance itself and its brands from influencer accounts.
Influencers and brands often buy accounts or followers to boost a product's visibility and popularity online, inviting criticism about a lack of transparency that can deceive consumers.
On Monday, Unilever said it would prioritise working with partners to increase transparency and eradicate misleading marketing practices.
Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed said it's common for fast-growing industries to have "a dark side", and added that influencer marketing is an increasingly important way for brands to reach consumers.
"However, some bad apples risk spoiling the barrel by undermining trust through bad practices like fake followers, bots, fraud or any dishonest business models," he said. "At best, this is misleading and at worst, it's fraudulent."
Unilever is one of world's largest advertisers. Its brands included Dove, Lipton tea, Axe and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The company spent nearly US$9.5 billion ($13.7b) last year marketing its brands, and of that, about US$2.4 billion on digital advertising.
Influencers can reap tens of thousands of dollars on one-hit promotions alone. An August 2017 study by Rakuten Marketing showed that British marketers working on influencer programmes were willing to pay celebrities on Facebook up to, or more than, £75,000 - or nearly $100,000 - for a single post giving a shoutout to their brand. Fees per post for fashion marketers hit more than £160,000 - more than $210,000.
Advertising companies often work with influencers without buying followers or fake accounts. Weed declined to tell Reuters how much Unilever paid its own influencers.
Monday's announcement follows Weed's earlier calls for the industry to distance itself from dishonest practices and rebuild consumer trust. In February, Weed warned that Unilever could pull its ads from online platforms like Facebook and YouTube if the tech giants didn't police divisive content on their sites. He also pledged that Unilever would not work with online platforms that fuel hate or divisions, or that endanger children.
Speaking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Leadership Meeting in California in February, Weed said the marketing industry had to commit to improving transparency "in an era of fake news and toxic online content".
He said 2018 presented the opportunity for companies like Unilever to "rebuild trust back in our systems and our society" and said the company was working to verify all of its media on all platforms worldwide.
But ultimately, Weed said, consumers were less concerned with "third-party verification" than they were with fake news or Russian meddling in US elections. Weed said consumers cared less about "ad targeting via complex algorithms" but did react when they knew their data was being misused and stolen.
Weed said Unilever was also committed to "creating responsible content", including by tackling gender stereotypes in advertising.
"No longer can we stand to one side or remain at arm's length just because issues in the supply chain do not affect us directly," Weed said in the speech. "As one of the largest advertisers in the world, we cannot have an environment where our consumers don't trust what they see online. So we must ask ourselves - what do brands stand for in the 21st century? To remain relevant, and trusted by consumers, brands have to take the lead."
Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University, said it was significant that Unilever was publicly committed to helping consumers "see the truth in our advertising and truth in our messaging".
But Egan said she wondered whether the announcement was, at least in part, driven by meagre returns on money invested in Unilever's existing influencer pool.
Still, Egan said Unilever's new commitment would probably be powerful enough to push other advertisers to adopt a similar pledge.
Unilever's announcement came on the first day of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, a yearly gathering of the "creative communications industry".
"The absence of a policy results in an endorsement of a policy," Egan said.
- Washington Post