Ethical issues related to influencers’ commercial collaborations and the right to freedom of expression
Influencer marketing have become one of the most effective commercial tools (Haenlein, et al., 2020). Influencer marketing is often done through the use of social media platforms, because of its outreach, and multimedia possibilities. In Norway in 2019, statistics showed that 90% of the population aged between 16 and 74 used social media platforms (SSB, 2019). Out of whom 16 to 24-year-olds were the most active users. Because of the high amount of social media users and the most frequent user being youth and young adults, it is important to look at what the online influencers publish and promote with reference to commercial content. Freedom of expression is the human right to say, write, think and act as one wants. However, influencer marketing is becoming a business where influencers earn a living on commercial collaborations in return of using their “expert”, “authentic” and “trustworthy” voice to promote commercial products. But not everything is considered ethical to express, especially to a large and easily influenced audience. Furthermore, there are unclear ethical guidelines for how influencer marketing should be carried out and if the receiver of the commercial message should be made aware that it is in fact commercial. In Norway there have been debates and suggestions of a regulative for influencers to prohibit them from sharing certain content, such as information about cosmetic surgeries.
Social media platforms provide influencers with a stage where they can signal millions of social media users. Signals are interpreted within the receiver and acted upon. For example, Selena Gomez, one of Instagram’s largest influencers, can promote drinking Coca Cola on her Instagram which can result in her followers purchasing and drinking Coca Cola (Haenlein, et al., 2020). Advertising through classical media, such as television, newspapers and radio is obvious to the receiver (Ebert & Sindermann, 2020). In television however, one can use product placement as a hidden commercial, and similarly one can also do so in for example Instagram posts. An influencer can for example post a picture of him or herself in front of a Fiat 500, which can, but does not have to be, a paid for collaboration. Furthermore, social media influencers are becoming role models for young people, it is therefore important to look at what these influencers are signalling and communicating to their young followers. Although the promotion of Coca Cola and Fiat 500, as in the previous examples, may not be considered harmful to the receiver, other commercial collaborations can be. Social media influencers are considered to be experts within their field of interest, hence they are perceived as more trustworthy (Ebert & Sindermann, 2020). To enhance their own credibility, influencers reason with their audience, and justify the reasons for their commercial collaboration. For example, influencers will say that the commercial product is very efficient and that it has improved their quality of life in some form. Moreover, influencers compared to classical advertising media, are individuals that share their private life and review products in order to gain economically. Influencers also use their own external appearances to create credibility for the product. For example, influencers show off their clear skin to promote products that claim to help against acne. As mentioned above, influencers have the ability to influence what their followers purchase. However, the targeted audience of influencers are often children and adolescents whom have not fully developed the skill to be critical, therefore, they are easily influenced (Nippold, LaFavre, & Shinham, 2020).
Commercial companies that target a young crowd would be wise to choose social media and influencers to promote their products (Lemon & Hoy, 2018). Instagram and YouTube were the most frequent platforms used by adolescents and young adults in the United States in 2020 (Statista, 2020). Influencers on these platforms have followers that are potential target audiences for commercial companies (Haenlein, et al., 2020) (Lemon & Hoy, 2018). An example of products that have been largely promoted on social media such as Instagram and YouTube are teeth whitening products. Moreover, influencers are feeding their followers the notion that they are never good enough through their commercial collaborations. There is always some product that can make us better, prettier and more attractive. Many people are worried about the effect, especially the psychological impact social media presence have on youth and young adult’s mental health (Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014). Social media is linked to the process of social comparison, meaning that social media users compare themselves to other individuals online (Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014). Many influencers contribute to the issue of upward social comparison, meaning that influencer followers perceive the influencer as better than themselves. This because influencers often share the positive sides of life and show off their material world. Upward social comparison is linked to a decrease in self-esteem (Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014). Furthermore, the ethical issue arises when influencers for example promote commercial products that for example are “essential” to them and that makes them feel more beautiful. Because of the perceived notion that influencers are experts within their field, and that the followers want to enhance their self-esteem, influencers create a pressure on the receivers to purchase products which they recommend.
Ethical guidelines for influencers might be a solution. Journalists have to follow ethical guidelines, because what they write and say will have an impact on both the receiver and the subject which is reported. Debates and regulative proposals have resulted in guidelines Norwegian influencers have to follow when promoting commercial products. For example, bloggers and influencers in Norway have to write “ad” on their social media posts that are commercial collaborations, and it has to be obvious to the receiver. If these guidelines are not followed, fines can be issued. Moreover, with such guidelines the receiver of the message is given the possibility to be critical, knowing that the promotion of the product is a paid for job.
To sum up, influencer marketing is growing, and many brands rely solely on influencer collaborations. However, there are ethical issues to be considered with these partnerships. Influencers have an enormous amount of responsibility to their followers. They have the ability to shape opinions, beliefs and attitudes, which in turn may be acted upon. Furthermore, influencer marketing can create insecurities within and harm young social media users. Ethical guidelines are an important factor in influencer marketing, because influencer’s followers should be given information about commercial collaborations. Furthermore, guidelines can potentially restrict influencers from entering partnerships that might be unethical.
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