#Insta-SCAMMERS?

Jan 29, 2018

Student | Tiana Goodall

Thomas Jefferson once said, "An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy." The gravity of these words have never felt greater than today. Social media has increasingly blurred the lines between what is real and what is a fallacy. Although some view Instagram hashtags for sponsored content as tacky, it is imperative that Instagram continues to inform their users of paid advertisements.

Prior to recently implemented measures, which inform consumers of sponsored content, many Instagram users had a very difficult time identifying an ad from personal content. This was no accident. Instagram intended to make "…your friends look more like brands, and brands look more like your friends, so it's increasingly hard to tell which is which…that's exactly what businesses want."[1] Firms are "casting their products as…an aspirational lifestyle."[2] Instagram, with 400 million daily users, represents an obscenely lucrative potential for businesses.[3] As of the start of 2016, "Instagram…had 200,000 advertisers…a predicted $3.2 billion in revenue."[4] Brands count on Instagram users, who are perhaps already portraying an idealized version of their lives, to fall prey to their "FOMO" tactics.[5] Likewise, "the depressing reality is, that…vulnerability makes it even better for advertising."[6] Brands are getting their "own semblance of life through sponsored posts as if the company were just another human posting…pics."[7]

Furthermore, companies are notorious for blurring out the identities of the subjects in their brand Instagram photos, further confusing the consumer, as many view the generic, nondescript appearance of the subjects as possible people they may know, and, "without realizing it, you insert yourself into the world of the ad."[8] Moreover, "it's as if an algorithm digested everyone…and spat out a robotic approximation of the overall aesthetic…the ads are compelling…in a sickly way."[9] Indeed, this is "all part of a strategy to reach consumers on a deeper level," and "convey the emotion of the brand experience."[10]

The Consumer Bill of Rights states that consumers have "the right to be informed."[11] The FTC stepped in, prior to the implementation of these measures, and found three main issues with Instagram's failure to disclose ad content. First, "some disclosures…were not clear enough."[12] Second, "Instagram users on smartphones typically see just the first three lines of text on a post."[13] Third, "when multiple…hashtags…are used...a disclosure may not be conspicuous."[14] On consumers, Deputy in the FTC's Ad Practices Division, Michael Ostheimer, said: "we want to make sure they are not being deceived," because they "are…served content…sanctioned by a brand."[15] Perhaps further clarifications in advertisements from Instagram will prevent some level of liability or blame on their part if things go wrong as evidenced in last year's hyper-promoted Fyre Festival, which was a monumental failure.[16]

Overall, this is a multi-faceted issue that will only become further complicated by our increasing reliance on Instagram and other social media platforms. FTC regulators will need to enforce stricter, more specific guidelines for protecting consumers in our rapidly changing world.


Tiana Goodall, a student in Jon Pfeiffer's Spring 2018 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the following question:Do Instagrammers really need to use hashtags like #ad or #sponsored? Isn't that tacky? Can't people tell that it's sponsored content without them?

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