Rules, regulations, guidelines. Irrespective of your industry- whether you make a living from award-winning public relations like us, or sell shares to investors in The City- we all have to work within the legal framework set out by whatever regulating body looks after our particular field.
But what about when those defining directives aren’t made abundantly clear to everyone involved?
Such a situation has unfolded this month, and come to a head this week with a statement from the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), delivered in the form of a concrete warning to people producing video content on YouTube. Needless to say, we’ve been here before.
Not so long ago, something of a debacle emerged between content creators and music licensees as a result of people making- and getting rich from- online clips, soundtracked by songs that, unbeknown to most of them, they had no legal right to use. The outcome was a few hefty fines and a slap on the wrist, which is understandable when you consider how little the majority of recording artists actually earn from their work these days, and how much some YouTube stars are bringing in from selling ads on their channels, which have become popular due to the quality of overall production (including soundtrack).
It’s proof that whenever you have a platform like YouTube, which is dominated by user-created content, there will always be problems in terms of legalities until someone (or some body) steps in. And this has once again rung true in the case of vloggers (video bloggers, if you’re not up with the lingo just yet), who have been given a ticking off by the ASA for failing to make it clear some of their clips were actually sponsored by the companies whose products appeared therein.
Put simply, then, in June a group of UK vloggers was asked to say nice things about delicious Oreo cookies, on camera, and share to their online followers. This happened, and the producers were financially rewarded for their efforts. The issue is the clips themselves were not marked as advertisements, promotional pieces or sponsored content. Something the ASA vehemently frowns on because it’s misleading the public, with the potential impact being the same as product placement on TV. In short, they had engaged in what you might call covert vlogger advertising.
It’s not necessarily a case of cash-hungry types looking to get a bit more money whilst still appearing editorially neutral, mind. In many instances, the so-called stars of YouTube simply haven’t had the right training and don’t have the necessary legal understanding to see what they are doing is wrong. One such character, Chyaz, a beauty and fashion vlogger based here in our home city of Manchester, explained that the laws ‘had not been made obvious’, and that having guidelines was good as it meant they could guarantee what they were doing was ‘actually right’.
Of course it’s very easy to wag a finger and right this off as simply a problem that stems from that lack of professional training. Yet it also calls into question the increasingly blurred boundaries between content creators, owners and editors; and the firms that so desperately want their products and services to be featured in that content. To use the instance of music, again, we all know the interviews with pop stars that appear in the papers and online come from agreements with PRs- they have a tour or record to promote, the publication has pages to fill. The entire reason for the article’s existence is to sell both the title and the product/celebrity, however this isn’t made clear and nor does it have to be.
This becomes even more complex, though, when you look at the interdisciplinary nature of the media in 2014. The rise of the freelancer might be fascinating, but it also poses a few problems when the various pies they have various fingers in are considered. For example, a publicist, agent or manager may also write for one or two publications, and as such it’s not hard to imagine they won’t, at some point, cover the artists they are also looking to promote for their other source of income.
As a general rule of thumb, then, obviously it’s vital for brands to maintain as much transparency as possible when looking to sponsor content, and to ensure the person they are sponsoring tows the party line. That could be by labelling the video as an advertising feature (like you would in print), by using a corporate logo on the thumbnail or in the corner of the clip, or pretty much any other way you can think of that would ensure viewers can’t possibly miss the fact that what they are watching has been paid for. But this doesn’t really answer the wider question; where exactly do we draw the line between content, advertising and promotion?