The term ethics refers to moral principles that govern behaviour (Oxford Dictionary, 2017). In the context of social media and business, ethics can refer to a company’s duty to engage with online consumers in a way that is appropriate, honest and morally sound (Drushal & German, 2011). Due to my interest marketing, I have chosen to focus on the ethics of social media endorsements.
Figure 1. Introduction to social media endorsements (self-produced via PowToon)
Social Media Endorsements
Research shows that electronic word-of-mouth communications are used by consumers to assess the reputation of brands (Amblee & Bui, 2014). To support this, a survey found that 83% of web users use recommendations to guide purchasing behaviour (Neilsen, 2015). The moral dilemma here? Whether businesses are unlawfully using online endorsements to exploit consumer trust.
The ethical issue here lies in whether consumers should be made aware of sponsored endorsements on social media. Paid-for endorsements that are not obvious to the public can be considered manipulative (Gillingham, 2011). It is arguably immoral for an influencer to promote something as their own opinion, and consequently sway a consumer’s purchasing behaviour, when in fact they are being paid to promote this opinion (Wilkinson, 2015).
These ethical issues are particularly concerning for ‘result-driven’ products such as detox teas, weight-loss supplements and teeth whiteners (Campbell, 2015). These products, often endorsed by popular social influencers, convince young people that they too can achieve ‘beauty’ or ‘health’ if they purchase the product. If the product fails to meet expectations, this can have a damaging impact on a young person’s self-esteem, in addition to the compromising physical and psychological effects of the product itself (Campbell, 2015).
Figure 3. Examples of undisclosed endorsements (self-produced via Google Slides)
Combating the Issue
There has been a recent crackdown on undisclosed endorsements. In the USA, the FTC requires explicit disclosure of an endorsement that informs the public it is paid-for. In the UK, this is governed by the ASA. These rules protect the reputation of both the brand and the influencer and prevent consumers from being misled. A win-win situation, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple, as endorsement guidelines are susceptible to misinterpretation and difficult to enforce (Schwab, 2016). Also, from a personal perspective, if I see ‘#ad’ or ‘#spon’ attached to an endorsement for a brand, this immediately raises questions about the brand’s credibility. So, whilst disclosed endorsements allow consumers to make more informed decisions, a perceived lack of authenticity can reduce the advertising impact of the endorsement.
It is worth noting that ethics, particularly within social media, are subjective in nature and often have no clear right or wrong answers. Thus, the question here remains, can a compromise of transparent but effective social media marketing be achieved?
Advertising Standards Authority (2017). UK code of non-broadcast advertising and direct & promotional marketing.
Amblee, N., & Bui, T. (2014). Harnessing the influence of social proof in online shopping: The effect of electronic word of mouth on sales of digital microproducts. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 16(2), 91-114.
Campbell, L. (2015). Current laws and social responsibility around social media product endorsements. The Huffington Post.
Drushal, B., German, K. (2011). The ethics of emerging media: Information, social norms, and the new media technology. New York, NY: Continuum.
Federal Trade Commission (2017). Guides concerning use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising.
Gillingham, E. (2011). The ethics of celebrity endorsement via social media sites.
Langford, L. (2014). Celebrity endorsement on social media. Campaign.
Oxford Dictionary (2017). Definition of ethics.
Schwab, D. (2016). No, you don’t need to write #ad in your promoted tweet. Forbes.
The Neilsen Company (2015). Global Trust in Advertising Report.
Wilkinson, O. (2015). Celebrity endorsements on social media. Knapton Wright Social Media Marketing.
Figure 1: Self-produced using PowToon.
Figure 2: Self-produced using Piktochart and this source.