We’ve all been browsing social media and come across a witty post shared by a friend. Maybe it refers to a favorite TV show or talks about your current mood. If you were intrigued enough to click on it, you might have been surprised to discover that it is actually an advertisement for fast food, fashion or even gambling. These adverts – which have no apparent connection to the product and are not overtly trying to sell you anything – are called content marketing, and the UK Advertising Standards Agency (“ASA”) recently decided that most of these advertisements fell under its UK regulations.
While the ASA made this decision with respect to advertisements promoting gambling, in particular, an ASA spokesperson revealed that the outcome is actually much broader, stating: ” Our mandate applies equally to advertising for all industries, so the statement we have issued for gambling reflects how we would approach content marketing for other industries, such as online brands. “alcohol or fast food chains. The vast majority of social media content from marketers falls under our purview and is therefore subject to our rules.” This could lead to a major change in the types of ads we see on line.
Content marketing is everywhere on social media – big names, like the supermarket chain Aldi and sports brand Nike, use it with great success. Forbes Magazine has suggested that brands should invest up to a third of their overall marketing budgets in this type of advertising, with other research showing the average among North American companies is close to 26%. And it’s no wonder this form of advertising is growing in popularity, as it generates three times more leads than other types of marketing, yet costs 62% less to produce.
But if you’re still wondering what content marketing is, it’s not necessarily by chance. Content marketing ads are designed to go unnoticed, so you might not notice that a funny meme has been posted by a brand – in this case fashion retailer ASOS…
While the primary goal of content marketing is to improve brand awareness and reputation and ultimately increase sales, the big benefit for businesses is that these ads are designed to make you to do work. By sharing, liking or commenting, social media users easily expand brand audience through the myriad of social media user networks. You might not do it for a “Buy 2 for 1” supermarket ad, but an image of a cute cat next to a fan displayed during a nationwide heat wave might be a different story.
Of course, the idea behind content marketing is that you will subconsciously make the connection to the brand, as will everyone in your network that you share it with. This will create a positive relationship with the brand. Research shows that these positive emotions will strengthen each time you (subconsciously) see fun or cute content from the same brand, eventually leading you to start consuming their products. It’s a sneaky but very powerful form of advertising, but it’s also an evolving form of advertising.
New content, same rules
Until July 2022, the ASA did not recognize content marketing as a form of advertising, so its regulations, such as the Code of Advertising Standards, did not apply to such advertisements. This meant that, in theory, game company content marketing messages could feature children; alcohol brands could encourage drunk driving; and fast-food chains could target children, all without violating advertising regulations. While encouraging drunk driving is far from a funny cat meme, regulating content marketing ads on social media is crucial. For one thing, these posts can be misleading because most people don’t realize they’re advertising something. They can bypass the cognitive defenses we all use when we see an advertisement to prevent us from buying unnecessary things.
The effects of this missing link are more harmful for certain products or services. Gambling, for example, is known to be addictive, and so a traditional gambling ad will ring alarm bells for most people. But if gambling companies use content marketing, users can interact with the post without even thinking about it and possibly follow the account. Once that happens, they’ll be exposed to more of the content on the account – not just the funny memes, but also the very engaging immediate-action ads encouraging users to “click here for a free bet.”
We know this happens on a massive scale, which we found in a study of over 888,000 gambling ads on Twitter. In this study, we found that about 40% of these ads were content marketing, and many were highly appealing to children.
After mounting pressure from academic publications, a debate in the UK House of Lords and media attention, including an episode of Channel 4’s Got Your Back from comedian Joe Lycett, the UK regulator stepped in to extend its rules to content marketing. The ASA now recognizes that most content marketing posts are actually advertisements and that all existing ad codes should apply to these posts. This means that messages like the overheated chat could still appear in your social media feed, but these ads will now have to comply with all regulations. For gambling, fast food or alcohol brands, this could mean companies can’t use content marketing at all without breaking regulations. Our previous research, for example, showed that 11 out of 12 posts on gaming content marketing had a strong appeal to children, which is not allowed by current advertising regulations.
Beyond ads centered around gambling and fast food, the regulator’s new stance on content marketing is a sea change in advertising regulation. Nevertheless, the real work has only just begun, as the expansion also raises new issues. Enforcement will be tricky, for example, given that all users’ social media feeds are different and content marketing material is often posted briefly and then released by users, not advertisers. But the more fundamental question will be whether under these new regulations it is even possible to publish content marketing that is clearly not recognizable as such.
The whole point of content marketing is that we don’t acknowledge it, otherwise we probably wouldn’t share it. This breaks one of the first rules of advertising standards, of course; so presumably every piece of content marketing will need to be marked “advertised” or “sponsored” in order for us to recognize it, which makes it considerably less cool to share. As such, this regulation could completely kill the practice of content marketing or, at the very least, drastically dampen its appeal, which could be a good thing. Memes can be cute and funny, but using them to trick consumers is sneaky, deceptive, and potentially very dangerous.
Raphael Rossi is a lecturer in marketing at the University of Bristol.
Agnes Nairn is Professor of Marketing at the University of Bristol. (This article was originally published by The Conversation.)