The world was confused by mysterious Tweets from Rio Ferdinand about knitting cardigans and from Katie Price about Eurozone debt problems. It all ended in a plug for Mars’ Snickers bar, but did the ASA verdict end in clarity for social media advertisers? Stephen Groom has his doubts.
Topic: Social media
Who: Mars Chocolate UK Ltd (Snickers), Rio Ferdinand, Katie Price and others
When: March 2012
Where: The Advertising Standards Authority
Law stated as at: 2 April 2012
Two series of five Tweets were posted on Twitter in the course of an hour in January 2012. They were posted from the official Twitter accounts of Rio Ferdinand and Katie Price.
The first four tweets in each series made no mention of any product and were about topics which seemed bizarre in light of the public persona of the celebrity making them.
Rio said he was looking forward to getting home from training so he could finish knitting a cardigan. Katie Tweeted about Chinese monetary policy and Eurozone debt problems.
The fifth and last Tweet in each series included a photo of the celebrity holding a Snickers bar and the strapline "You're not you when you're hungry @snickersUk#hungry#spon".
The Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA"), which now regulates "advertisements and other marketing communications by or from companies…on their own websites or in other non-paid-for space online under their control," received two complaints about the Tweets.
The complainants challenged whether the Tweets were obviously identifiable as marketing communications.
"Only the last Tweet was a marketing communication" say Mars
Mars submitted in its defence that in each case, only the fifth Tweet was a marketing communication. Alternatively the Snickers maker argued that the first four Tweets only became marketing messages when the fifth posting appeared. At this point, Mars said, the series of Tweets as a whole became one single marketing communication, whose nature was made clear by the disclosures in the last Tweet.
In the fifth Tweet, the advertiser said that the use of the "#spon" tag was widely recognised by Twitter users as indicating sponsored content, as had been confirmed to them by an "industry body" in advice given in advance of the campaign.
The ASA disagreed that the first four Tweets all became part of one, five Tweet marketing communication once the fifth in the series was posted.
ASA finds for Mars
However, the ASA determined that the combination of the following factors made clear that all the Tweets were advertising and ensured that on seeing the last "reveal" Tweet, "consumers would then understand each series of Tweets was a marketing communication":
1. each of the first four Tweets in each series served as teasers to heighten interest in the celebrities' postings;
2. none of the first four Tweets referred to Snickers or Mars;
3. all of the first four Tweets were posted in quick succession; and
4. the last, "reveal" Tweet showed the celebs with the product and included the "You're not you when you're hungry" strapline with the Snickers reference and the #spon tag.
"In that particular context," the ASA adjudication goes on, "and given the relevance of the first four Tweets to the "You're not you when you're hungry" strapline in the reveal Tweets, we considered it acceptable that the first four Tweets were not individually labelled as being part of the overall marketing communications. We therefore concluded that the ads did not breach the Code."
Why this matters:
As this was the first celebrity Twitter campaign to come before the ASA since the extension of the CAP Code's remit to cover such activity in March 2010, it was important that we got a clearly reasoned decision that sent out an easy to follow message on how to approach campaigns of this kind.
Ideally, the decision might also have referred to the only UK industry guidelines specifically dealing with paid-for Twitter endorsements which were available at the time of this campaign breaking.
These are the "IAB-ISBA Guidelines on the Payment for Editorial Content to Promote Brands within Social Media." The Guidelines include a clear requirement that a "#ad" tag disclosure should appear in paid-for Twitter endorsements.
Unfortunately the decision which we actually got did not meet such expectations.
No reference was made to the IAB-ISBA Guidelines and the ASA arguably undermines these by effectively holding that not all paid-for Twitter endorsements need carry the "#ad" or "#spon" disclosure.
Also, the verdict is potentially confusing. On the one hand it rejects the notion that a final "reveal" Tweet at the end of a rapid sequence of Tweets converts all the linked Tweets to one single marketing communication.
But on the other hand it finds that on seeing the last "reveal" Tweet, followers would then understand that the first four messages were also marketing communications. A distinction without a difference perhaps?
Also, the ASA does not say, as it might have done more logically, that the first four Tweets were never marketing messages due to the absence of any reference to Snickers and therefore did not need a "#spon" or "#ad" disclosure.
Instead the regulator finds that they were indeed marketing messages but because they were posted in quick succession and followed by a "reveal" Tweet which made the previous four Tweets "relevant" , they did not need "'#spon" or "#ad".
So we have a decision which ultimately favoured the advertiser, but leaves in its wake uncertainty as to when "#ad" or "#spon" disclosures have to be included in social media postings for marketing purposes.
Not that good for starters!