If it looks like an advert and sounds like an advert, then it’s probably… an advert

Some of you might have heard of vlogging. Some of you might not. And some of you might have heard of it but still not know what on earth we’re on about. Not to worry, we can do something about that.

A little background

A vlog is literally a video blog. And when we say literally, we mean literally. Literally. A few years back, sometime around 2000 (OK, so maybe more than a few) , a blogger living in the U.S. decided to upload a video of himself alongside his blog post. Et voilà, the vlog was born.

Vlogging didn’t catch on all that quickly. Over the next few years, more people adopted the practice, but the numbers (of both vloggers and their audiences) weren’t exactly huge. Then came 2005, and everything changed. Almost overnight, it would seem, vlogging was no longer something done by the few and watched by the few. You might be wondering, “Why 2005?”. Well, that’s also the year a little something called YouTube was created. And as YouTube grew, so too did vlogging. Even today, the vast majority of vlogs are uploaded to and watched on YouTube.

What’s all this about adverts?

Well, over time, the audiences of some vloggers just grew and grew. And grew. Some have thousands watching them, some have tens of thousands and others have hundreds of thousands. There are even those who have millions watching their vlogs. Yes, millions. You might be unsurprised, then, that canny marketers started to see these vlogs as another means of advertising a product. A popular vlogger reviewing your product provides almost instant publicity, sometimes on a rather considerable scale.

So what was the problem?

The thing is, while sometimes it was clear when a vlog was advertising a product, sometimes it wasn’t. This might be because, for example, the vlogger didn’t mention that they had made their vlog post at the request of the the manufacturer.

This all came to a head when, in 2014, a BBC journalist brought a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). They argued that a series of YouTube videos featuring Oreo biscuits, while being adverts, were not clearly identifiable as such. In other words, the videos were misleading since viewers might not realise that what they were in fact watching was not a simple YouTube video, but instead was part of a marketing campaign in which:

  • the manufacturer sent the products to the vloggers and requested that the videos be made; and
  • there may have been some sort of financial incentive for the vlogger.

The complaint was upheld. The ASA said that even though some viewers may have recognised that Oreo had been involved in the creation and financing of the videos (e.g. some of the vloggers had, in their videos or in the description box, thanked Oreo for making the video possible), the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code “required ads to be obviously identifiable as marketing communications”. And since these videos were “on online video channels that were usually editorial based”, ASA said that for these adverts to be clearly identifiable as such, the commercial relationship between the vlogger and Oreo would need to have been made clear before viewers started watching the video. They also pointed out that even though some viewers had realised that there was some sort of financial arrangement in place, this didn’t necessarily mean that:

  • they recognised the videos as being adverts – i.e. they may still have thought the vlogger had “retained editorial control”; or
  • the audience as a whole recognised the videos as being commercial in nature.

So, the videos had breached the CAP Code.

What happened next?

The videos, as they were, had to be taken down. It was made clear to the manufacturer (Mondelez UK Ltd) that, from then on, any such adverts had to make clear their “commercial intent” before the viewers watched the video.

Now what?

In response to requests for greater clarity from vloggers, the CAP released guidance in August of this year which makes it clear that if you’re posting a video that amounts to an advert, you need to make sure that anyone watching understands this from the start. It’s worth noting that the guidance is just that – guidance. It’s not legally binding. However, it helps clear up some of the ambiguity surrounding the issue. It also sets out a non-exhaustive list of scenarios in which the issue could arise, and how to deal with them, such as vlogging about your own product, product placement and the inclusion of commercial breaks within a vlog.

The number of vloggers out there and those watching them is only increasing. And more and more products are being advertised using vlogs, either directly or indirectly. It can be an effective way to market a product to a sometimes huge audience, and can benefit both the vlogger and the business. And it’s precisely this that makes it all the more important for both the business and the vlogger to make sure that the audience knows exactly what it is they’re watching.

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