On 9 May 2022 the DCMS Committee published a report, Influencer culture: Lights, camera, inaction? exploring the rapid expansion of influencer culture. The Report emphasised the boost to the UK economy and the creation of a new mode of brand engagement with both loyal and new clientele but it also uncovered the regulatory gaps that exist in the sector which are preventing healthy growth.
Advertising disclosure remains a significant concern but the Report also highlighted a more troubling effect of influencer culture, the failure to protect children as both ‘kidfluencers’ and viewers of influencer content online.
The DCMS report called on the Government to make changes to employment law and advertising regulation in particular highlighting:
- It's not always glamorous behind the camera – citing extreme abuse and online trolling based on interviews with a number of influencers, the Report highlighted that the ‘dream’ job is not always as straightforward or, indeed glamourous, as it might appear.
- Transparency is needed around influencer pay and employment – making a living in the industry is still considered a challenge and there is a distinct lack of pay transparency leading to significant pay gaps between influencers.
- Advertising regulation needs to catch up – compliance with the disclosure requirements remains low and despite the regulator’s efforts to educate, many influencers and brands still seem unaware of their responsibilities.
- Influencer advertising should be made clearer to children – children are less digitally literate than adults and are therefore more vulnerable to native and embedded advertising, finding it difficult to distinguish it from other content online. More support is needed to develop media literacy and a higher disclosure standard should apply to content targeting at children.
- Kidfluencers should be registered as 'working children' – kidfluencers with their own accounts or those who are part of their parents’ platforms are hugely popular and in some cases very lucrative. The UK’s child performance regulations do not apply to user generated content meaning that kidfluencers are not protected like other children working in the entertainment industry leaving them open to exploitation.
So, a year on, what has changed? Unfortunately, very little.
The UK’s Online Safety Bill which has been promised and delayed more times that I wish to count, attempts to solve the issues highlighted by the first point above. I do not believe, however, that the current proposals go far enough. The Report itself included some helpful proposals for amendments to the OSB including an obligation on platforms to incorporate reporting and complaints mechanisms tailored to the specific nature of various types of harms but these suggestions were not followed.
The ISBA Code of Conduct for influencer marketing launched in September 2021 and re-published in May 2022 attempts to address the issues highlighted in point 2 above – “Brands recommit to the principle of equal pay for equal work – and to be allies in addressing the unacceptable pay gaps in influencer marketing” but the Code is only binding where incorporated into contracts and is not as commonly used as one might expect or indeed hope.
The ASA continues to fight the good fight, publishing guidance, communicating rulings and investigating repeat offenders but with limited enforcement power it is essentially immobilised against the behemoth that is the UK marketing industry.
The DCMS Online Media Literacy Strategy published in July 2021 has some worthy aims but without regulatory change that makes native advertising truly distinguishable to children I cannot see point 4 being resolved any time soon.
Looking finally to point 5, kidfluencers remain unprotected by UK law and the issues of privacy, compensation and oversight of working time and conditions remain unconsidered and alarmingly under reported.
There is a lot that needs to change in order to address the issues highlighted in the Report but it is disappointing to see so little attention over the last year from legislators, regulators, charities or other interested parties. The optimist in me hopes that this coming year will be a time of progress on each of the above points but the realist is failing to see any signs of true change.
if you dig below the shiny surface of what you see on screen you will discover an altogether murkier world where both the influencers and their followers are at risk of exploitation and harm online