Health and legal professionals have spoken out against “deceptive” and “unlawful” online marketing following Essena O’Neill’s public condemnation of Instagram last week.
But marketing agencies argue there is nothing wrong with the practice, which has been effectively employed by celebrities for years.
Ms O’Neill became an international sensation when she quit the popular platform last week, revealing the truth to her half-a-million followers about what it means to be “Instafamous”. The 19-year-old Australian model deleted thousands of selfies and posed photos, renamed her account to “Social Media Is Not Real Life” and altered the captions to expose payments for product endorsements and pressures to look perfect.
Sydney Barrister and co-author of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law Mark Polden told The Newsroom he believes the concealment of Instagram sponsorships is highly deceptive and comes very close to overstepping sections within Australian Consumer Law.
“There is an argument to be made that it is unlawful because the thing that they are putting out there in the world is deceptive, and is leaving out an important element, namely that they’re being paid to do this,” said Mr Polden.
“In section 29 of the Australian Consumer Law it states that in connection with promotion by any means of the supply or use of goods and services a person must not make a false or misleading representation that purports to be a testimonial relating to goods or services.”
Mr Polden said the legal system often had to play “catch up” with advancements in social media and, in this case, changes needed to be made to Australian Consumer Law.
“Looking at the Australian Consumer Law what would be helpful would be to have a provision in there that talks about implied representations in which someone is endorsing a product without disclosing that they are being paid to do so. That counts as misrepresentation,” said Mr Polden.
But John Agnew, editor of Sydney marketing agency Analogfolk, disagreed with Mr Polden, saying marketing through social media had provided a more exciting way for brands to connect with their audience.
“One thing that’s great about Instagram is that it’s forcing brands to think a little differently… Previously, if we’re talking about ads outside of the internet and social space, it was just whoever had the biggest dollars could put the most ads out there and therefore have a greater reach. But now, these are platforms that have initially been created purely as a form of entertainment and communication,” said Mr Agnew.
The marketing professional argued that Instagram should not be criticised for deceptive marketing, saying it was similar to celebrity branding, which had been used for years.
“You have lots of product placement in film and you have celebrities used in ads all the time… People aren’t trying to dupe anyone. I think that this is something that has been happening for a long time… long before Instagram even existed,” he said.
Mr Agnew said he believed it was a widely known fact that Instagram sensations were paid to promote products, and today’s youth were well aware of the practice.
“They don’t disclose whether a celebrity is being paid in an ad or whether they just love the product. But, let’s just say that hypothetically they are getting paid… It’s just something that people have figured out,” he said.
“I think that people also need to give credit to the younger generations and not just assume that they don’t know what’s going on. I think that they’re probably a lot smarter than what people think.”
Adolescent psychologist Davina Donovan said while there may be a portion of children who were aware of the practice, most weren’t, due to a teenage tendency to idolise aesthetically “perfect” people.
“For a good chunk of girls who might lack a critical mind, and have self-esteem issues, I definitely think that this will deceive them,” said Ms Donovan.
“It’s those vulnerable young girls that idolise these people and put them on a pedestal.”
Teenager Georgia Sibraa agreed with Ms Donovan, telling The Newsroom that when she was younger she often bought products that Instagram stars promoted because she wanted to be like them.
“I used to think that if I bought the tea or protein powder that the models were promoting I would eventually look like them,” said Ms Sibraa.
However, after using the products, the 18-year-old said she realised they didn’t work and began to understand the sponsorships behind the promotions.
“I am definitely wiser now because I tried it and realised it’s not what they make it out to be… But it is quite deceptive to people who follow these celebrities because it makes them think they actually use the products when they don’t,” she said.
Ms Sibraa suggested that Instagram stars should start disclosing their sponsorships to their followers, saying that it may have changed her decision to buy the products in the first place.
“I would not have bought the products to be honest because I would feel like the company is really misleading,” she said.
Ms O’Neill’s public expose of Instagram last week – in which she revealed her undisclosed sponsorships with brands including Skinnyme Tea and Frank – attracted both praise and criticism, with some suggesting it was all a marketing ploy of her own as she prepares to write her first book. – Sophia Rambaldini
Top photo from Essena O’Neill’s Instagram page.