I Spy With My Little Eye: A Celebrity, An Endorsement…and A Hidden Hashtag?


A pound sign and two letters—#sp—buried among a paragraph of hashtags at the end of an Instagram caption.

Right now, that may be the only indication if the tea-holding celebrity on your feed actually drinks the purported magical elixir or merely poses with it (while pocketing a few bills along the way).

The ever-increasing proliferation of sponsored content on social media indicates just how strongly consumers feel about having an interpersonal connection or viewing personal endorsements before making a purchase choice. Advertisers, after all, are always hungry for new ways to capture their target audiences’ attention, and social media stars seem to be the next gateway. But the line between genuine fawning and greedy cash-grubbing can become hazy. BuzzFeed even recently started an “Is This An Ad?” weekly column, in which they try to discern “the confusing world of celebrity social media endorsements”; so far, their case studies have included Nick Jonas’ Lyft (Instagram), Amber Rose’s juicer (Twitter), and Beyonce’s Airbnb (Facebook).

But soon, sponsored content on social media could be as identifiable as more traditional advertising that runs on TV, is printed in newspapers, and plastered across highway billboards. Or at least the FTC is trying to make it that way.

In July 2016, the FTC sued Warner Brothers for failing to make sure its YouTube influencers disclosed that the video game they lauded—Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor—was actually sponsored and came with thousands of dollars in checks from Warner Brothers. And, according to the FTC, the agency will be much stricter in the future.

Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches,” the Director of FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said in the press release announcing the Warner Brothers settlement. Companies have always leveraged well-known faces to elevate their advertisements, so these types of endorsements are not necessarily uncharted territory, but the FTC is questioning if social media audiences are aware of their (potential lack of) authenticity. New regulations may include explicitly and visibly stating the presence of sponsored content verbally or through text (#spon and #sponsored, as opposed to #sp) before launching into a veiled sales pitch.

At first glance, the impending crackdown may not seem to have monumental implications. Disruptive, yes, to place a hashtag before the rest of the caption. Tricky, yes, to prominently insert a disclaimer into an already fleeting Snapchat. But merely a surface-level nuisance.

However, as professional communicators, we are interested in how these changes may impact the relationship between user and influencer; as Bloomberg pointed out, stricter sponsored content guidelines “could make the posts seem less authentic, reducing their impact.”

Indeed, a banner with the word “SPONSORED” or “ADVERTISEMENT” plastered across the top of an Olympic athlete’s Snap, for example, is distracting and, admittedly, a bit cringe-worthy.

But we must also be cognizant that the 21st century audience already recognizes that what he or she sees may not always tell the full story. Social media users have long been primed to consume with a healthy dose of skepticism, and while the FTC rules will only further remind them, they certainly do not mark the end of social media as an advertising platform. So how do we, as communicators, approach the important dual tasks of retaining authenticity (and appeal) when utilizing influencers while also providing followers with the disclaimers they deserve? We’ve come up with a few tips.

  1. Be honest: It will help you earn the trust of your followers – and avoid the ire of the FTC. Paying for influencers is not a shameful practice; it just needs to be disclosed.
  2. Pursue organic growth: Identify and stick with a few influencers who will develop a strong relationship with your product or mission as opposed to many influencers who only post your recommended social media guidance. The adage “quality over quantity” rings true in many instances, including this one.
  3. Encourage anecdotal personalization: The most powerful moments are often personal stories, and these will become engrained in your audience’s minds. Whether your end goal is product promotion, advocacy, or simply Facebook likes, have your influencer develop a connection with the audience through their own experiences, not generic statements that won’t fool savvy social audiences.
  4. Create audience engagement opportunities: Traditional advertising has often been referred to as a one-way street, a paid actor talking to the audience through a screen. Today, through social media, advertising is now a two-way interaction with many opportunities for engagement. Identify those opportunities, leverage them, and sustain them.

For now, next time you’re scrolling through Instagram or refreshing Twitter, see if you can spot an ad. It won’t be long before all you have to do is look for that #spon.

Written by Lydia Liu, a Blue Engine summer intern who is a rising second-year at the University of Chicago.