An Instagram post depicting a family in McDonald’s pajamas holding McDelivery bags revealed Australia’s regulatory âgray areasâ in influencer marketing.
Advertising in Australia is self-regulated. An independent body, Ad Standards, exists to enforce the industry’s voluntary code.
The post, uploaded to the Instagram account @SouthAussiewithCosi, which has 118,000 subscribers, featured South Australia’s SAFM radio host Andrew “Cosi” Costello with his family.
The caption read: âVerified @maccas_sa has served South Australians for 50 years. How cool is that? Tonight we are celebrating their birthday with delivery and my daughters are wearing the @peteralexanderofficial limited edition maccas pajamas.
After a review by an Ad Standards panel, McDonald’s Australia was found to be in violation of the separate advertising rules set out in the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ Code of Ethics, which states that advertisements must be “obvious” and “Direct”.
What was missing from the post was a #sponsored or #ad hashtag. But McDonald’s hadn’t paid Costello for the job. Although they had a business relationship with the radio station he works for, all McDonald’s provided directly to Costello was free product.
In their initial response to the complaint, McDonald’s argued that they “offered the products as a sign of goodwill” and that due to the non-commercial nature of the relationship, “the content posted on the ‘South Aussie with Cosi ‘is entirely beyond the reasonable control of McDonald’s’.
The majority of the panel determined that âthe influencer was motivated to post positive content on their employer’s sponsor, and in the context of the relationship, for example, would not have posted in the same way on a competitor as the employer sponsor â. The post has now been deleted and there is no suggestion that Costello violated any standards that applied to him.
Eleni Pringle says the practice of brands offering giveaways for exposure on social media is incredibly widespread. She runs the @BooksWithEleni account on Instagram and YouTube, and has amassed approximately 4,500 subscribers. In marketing jargon, that makes her a âmicro influencerâ.
Pringle says that even in her âniche cornerâ of Instagram, she sees talented products in posts âall the timeâ.
âYou see pretty setups with a book in focus and a bookmark, candle, or pin on the side,â she explains. âUsually the caption will be about the book and won’t specify which store the candle or bookmark came from. They’ll just tag the store in the photo.
Kevin Lynch, a partner at Sydney Johnson Winter and Slattery law firm, says there are two interesting elements to McDonald’s decision. The first is whether or not McDonald’s was responsible for the publication under the Advertising Code.
McDonald’s would “need to have a reasonable degree of control over social media content,” he said.
âThere is no doubt that the radio host did exactly what McDonald’s would have wanted by sending him bags of Maccas. But McDonald’s does not have ultimate control over how the message would be presented … There is a small gap there. “
Lynch says the second element is whether Costello’s post stands out as an advertisement.
âBusinesses want organic social media engagement with their product,â says Lynch. âThey want it to be as low-key as possible. “
The Code of Advertising Standards was designed so that businesses cannot “hide the fact that this is advertising,” says Lynch. It exists to ensure that these organic social media ads remain ‘clearly distinguished’.
âWhen you have a commercial radio host posting a photo on Instagram wearing limited edition McDonald’s pajamas with his family, hammering McDonald’s bags into the camera, I think the fact that it’s a advertising is as subtle as a hammer, âsays Lynch.
Digital culture marketing scholar Dr Lauren Gurrieri says research shows social media influencers often feel pressured to post positive things about a company because of the gift culture.
Social media influencers âbuild on those relationshipsâ that are built with a brand. They give a sense of stability and, in some cases, âcontinuous income,â Gurrieri explains. âSo, of course, you will feel obligated to promote things accordingly. “
Pringle agrees. She says that in larger communities on Instagram, across beauty, fashion and tech, influencers “rely on brands that submit products for their own content in posts and reviews.”
McDonald’s isn’t the first to break the code of advertising standards this year with content Lynch says any “social media consumer” could see as “clearly an advertisement.”
An article by fashion influencer Nadia Fairfax was submitted to Ad Standards for review after the photo, featuring three friends holding Samsung phones, received complaints about a lack of advertising disclosure. The caption read, âZ FLIP (ing) around FW with these twoâ¦. @galaxybysamsung â, and included the #WorkingWithSaumsuing #GalaxyZFlip #NadiaTakesSamsung tags.
Samsung responded to the panel, saying the position in question “was not a deliverable” under their working agreement with Fairfax.
The panel found that the post violated the distinctive advertising code because it clearly had not been declared an advertisement. The post has since been updated with the hashtag #BrandedContent. It is not suggested that Fairfax violated the standards applicable to it.
Lynch says that relationships between a business and an influencer always involve incentives. âWith this type of relationship, it’s important for the consumer to know that someone’s opinions have been influenced on some level.
âIt can range from a bag of free Big Macs to hefty payments. One freebie is enough to trigger the code’s requirements.
Brent Coker of Australian influencer marketing agency Wear Cape is concerned that many influencers may not be equipped to know best practices for sharing gifted products.
âIt’s surprisingly common for influencers to seem to endorse products without disclosing them,â he says. “Or think that only paid post requires disclosure.”
âThat gray area of ââwhether something is an advertisement or not exists for influencers,â he says. âWe mostly see it with the smaller brands that rely on the influencer to know how to properly handle products, which is a recipe for disaster. In this case, it is surprising that it is McDonald’s.
A “misconception” about the best approach to social media marketing is shared by some brands, Coker says.
âThey think it’s better not to disclose that a message is an advertisement than disclosure. They think it makes it look authentic. This is a big deal because, frankly, consumers are not that naive.
âAn advertisement will work best when it is fully disclosed. The public wants this transparency.
Consumers like Laura agree. The mom-of-two was scrolling through her Instagram feed when she saw the post from Cosi’s McDonald’s, which she said looked “immediately like a posed photo.”
For Laura, who chooses to use her first name only out of fear of negative social media reactions, the post did not sufficiently confirm that it was advertising.
âI went to the legend to see what it was about. I read and reread it, looking for indications that this was a sponsored article in partnership, but nothing in the caption indicated that, âsays Laura.
She filed a complaint with the Ad Standards community panel for review.
âWith great influence comes great responsibility,â says Laura. âAny business relationship must be disclosed. “
In response to the discovery, McDonalds made a statement to Mumbrella, stating, âMcDonald’s takes its responsibility as an advertiser seriously. We are disappointed with the outcome of the complaint, however, we respect the final decision of the panel. We contacted the influencer, and the influencer has agreed to remove the post.