By Emma Nagel, SML Research Assistant

Like this… but more stylish.

Advertising is everywhere on social media. Between Facebook’s sidebar ads and celebrities showing off hot new products, everyone seems to be making a profit. So is social media just a new advertising platform? The answer is complicated.

The rise of social media has coincided with the rise of endorsed advertising. Today’s consumer uses ad blockers and has switched from TV to streaming services, so traditional ads don’t reach them. Advertisers have turned to social media to reach this elusive audience. Younger generations in particular are often the target of social media advertising. Where social media users once just followed their friends, they now also follow bloggers, celebrities, and other people with photo-worthy lifestyles. Marketers are reaching out to these social media influencers — users with large numbers of followers — to endorse their products.

So is digital marketing successful? It certainly seems so. Sponsored social media posts reach a wide audience, especially among millennials. Potential consumers can learn about new products, places, and services. Celebrities and social media stars get free goods, a sense of creative license, attention, and a paycheck. Advertisers and marketers get young, social-media-savvy eyeballs on their products.

What do endorsements or sponsored posts look like?

Kourtney Kardashian endorses Fittea on her personal Instagram account.

Sponsored posts are generally pretty easy to spot, once you know what to look for. Some endorsers are celebrities in their own right, and use hashtags that distinguish the post as an ad. Here, Kourtney Kardashian uses the #ad hashtag as she endorses a weight loss product.

Chamas, known as somethingnavy on Instagram, endorses Ralph Lauren products.

Other social media stars have less general celebrity status, but their high follower counts make them prime endorsers, too. Fashion blogger Arielle Noa Chamas, known as somethingnavy on Instagram, is a prime example of a non-celebrity endorser on social media. Fashion bloggers have wholeheartedly embraced sponsored posts as a way to self-promote and boost income. Brooke Duffy, a Cornell professor studying social media production and digital labor, notes that the organization of fashion blogging has increasingly become “market-driven” and “self-promotional.” With over 900,000 followers, its not surprising that brands seek placement on somethingnavy’s Instagram and Snapchat accounts.

Instagram user alxndrrth tags companies and products in his photos.

Instagram user alxndrrth isn’t a celebrity or blogger, but his personal style has earned him around 24,000 Instagram followers. Like many fashion-conscious Instagrammers, he posts photos of outfits that include tags for each product. However, it’s unclear whether he’s compensated for his posts. The photo’s caption doesn’t include a descriptive hashtag or a mention of a brand. That being said, he has many loyal followers, so it’s not a stretch to assume that he might receive products for free.

So how can a social media user tell a personal post from an ad?

The Federal Trade Commission has a few truth-in-advertising laws, but they’re mostly meant to ensure that products can deliver on what their ads promise. The nonprofit group TINA (Truth in Advertising) takes this further, promoting regulation for other types of deceptive advertising. The group asserts that there are rules to be followed when endorsing products on social media. They say that first and foremost, an endorsement should be “clear and conspicuous” when the user “has been paid or given some value.”

TINA promotes using “#ad” or “#sponsored” hashtags in order to clearly indicate sponsored content. The Kourtney Kardashian Fittea endorsement shows the #ad hashtag clearly, but it’s not easy to find in the other two examples above. Unfortunately, TINA’s rules are just suggestions. At present, there’s no enforceable regulations for social media endorsements.

What does this mean for us?

It is an undisputed fact that many of us — Millennials or not — look to social media for recommendations. From popular new restaurants with decadent desserts to “spontaneous” street style posts, companies are turning to social media influencers to help build their brands and reach younger audiences. Product endorsements don’t just come from celebrities, though. Advertisers are marketing their products through social media stars who have large, loyal followings and can help reach specific categories of users.

While many celebrity endorsements of trendy products are easy to spot, other posts also must be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s not clear whether they profit from posting. In an age where we follow famous Instagrammers like they’re our close friends, it’s important to be able to distinguish personal posts from paid ones. We trust our friends to give honest recommendations, and assume they’re not being paid thousands of dollars for their photos and tags. When we trust our more famous social media “friends” the same way, it’s important to be able to properly understand the motivation behind the posts we see.

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