Meet the analyst challenging TikTokers’ ad disclosure: “ASA rules don’t allow for nuance”

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in Case studies

2 weeks ago

Alice Bull didn’t set out to be a TikTok crusader. Instead, the influencer marketing consultant was sitting on her sofa last month, glass of wine in hand, scrolling through TikTok, when she came across a post by influencer Emily Canham. In the video, Canham was extolling the virtue of ice cream maker Ninja CREAMi, with no ad marker in sight. Bull saw bad practice and decided to call it; she stitched the video and discussed Canham’s failure to fully disclose her working relationship with Ninja UK. The clip went viral, gaining thousands of views and hundreds of comments.

So, Bull did what all creators worth their salted caramel lattes do when their content goes viral. She made another video, and unwittingly caused a TikTok storm that would expose fault lines in legislation delivered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and plant seeds of discussion that might seriously impact the way social media creators do business on the platforms. Not bad for a quiet Sunday night in October.


#stitch with @Emily Canham and thats on bad influencer marketing practice 🤪

♬ Sunshine – WIRA

Bull has been working in influencer marketing for 18 years. She ran Vice’s digital marketing in UK and Europe in the early 2000s, working with students to promote Vice events on their MySpace pages. “We used to pay them in clothes, records and magazines,” she says. In her career, she’s bounced between freelance and big companies, run influencer seeding at Glastonbury, and worked at BBH Global, Billion Dollar Boy and Ogilvy. She now runs A&Co, an influencer management and brand strategy agency. In short, Bull has covered a lot of bases in her career: “I’ve done all sides of it.” But in the end, it is ad disclosure that is, in TikTok parlance, her “Roman Empire”.

When the Emily Canham video blew up, it was instantly clear to Bull that there was a disconnect between what everyone in the industry understands as commercial content, and how it’s interpreted by social media users at home. She says: “When you’re in an industry you don’t realise that, externally, people have no idea what the inner workings are. Everyone who uses social media is touched by influencer marketing and the commerciality of creators, the people that you follow and rely on to give authentic recommendation. It’s important to break down that wall so we’re holding the people who are marketing to us to account.”

Bull then made a video about another wildly successful entrepreneur and social media OG, whose content she felt didn’t satisfy the ASA legislation, because there was no overt disclosure on the creator’s personal account about her relationship with the company she had founded. This was not the first time the influencer had come under fire. Unwittingly, though, Bull’s video triggered a torrent of abuse in both directions, not helped by the influencer commenting and filming her own statement. There were a few days of accusations, millions of views, negative commenting and a febrile air on the platform. The videos were taken down. The influencer edited their biography to include a list of their businesses, in case of doubt.

In the wake of the storm, Canham’s TikTok caption was also edited to include the word “ad” – which means she must have contacted the platform for help, because creators cannot edit captions after seven days.

Only one-third of creators disclosing ads properly

Despite the appearance of calm, the issue of ad disclosure remains. The question Bull was asking was: Does everyone know when watching a creator’s content whether or not they are profiting from the product they are talking about? The power of creators comes from their ability to build communities around themselves, to have audiences who follow their every move and support their endeavours. Influencers create content and product for their audiences, and everyone in this parasocial dynamic is happy. But the issue that Bull has is, in the case of TikTok for example, there is no guarantee that everyone who looks at your content also knows your CV by heart. Content goes viral exactly because it’s seen beyond your direct audience. If content appears on someone’s For You Page, targeted at them by the algorithm, and you didn’t know that creator, how would you know if they were promoting something or not? It’s unlikely, says Bull, adding: “The ASA carried out an audit in 2021 and found that only 35% of creators were disclosing their adverts properly.”

The problem becomes amplified when the creator has separate channels, for their personal content and their businesses. Any content on their business channels is free from the ad marker because it is clearly representing their work, which is why hairdressers, musicians, makeup artists and business owners can talk about their endeavours until the cows come home. But if your personal page is driving people to your brand, and you are profiting from this, then it should be marked “ad”. The ASA guidelines state: “If you’ve received payment or any other incentive from a brand, or you are otherwise personally or commercially connected to the brand, any related content will need to make clear that it’s advertising.” Bull talks about seeing “one of The Saturdays who has a matcha drink brand. She’s always there on her grid with a cup of matcha. But you can’t just seed your product into your personal account without saying ‘hey, this is my brand’. That’s misleading.”

Despite the legislation, there are many reasons why creators might not be trigger-happy with the ad marker: creators or brands may not know they have to disclose “ad” every time they talk about or picture themselves with a product they have been paid to promote, even after the campaign has ended, and indeed for 12 months after the contract; plus the assumption that people know who they are so therefore know they are the boss. But surely the biggest issues lie in the fact that as soon as you use the paid partnership tool or “ad” marker, audiences are quicker to scroll past, don’t hit the “like” button and the algorithm favours organic content. Bull discusses this is in a video about influencer Jack Joseph, whose views recently halved for a campaign. Those numbers are costly for a creator, in an increasingly number-driven climate. But Bull suggests: “If everything was declared correctly, the algorithm couldn’t strangle all that content, which it was otherwise seeing as organic content. I think there would be a big shift in how the algorithm deals with ad content.”

However, Bull does agree that the word “ad” is too “reductive”. She says: “The only way that the ASA will accept declaration is if you say ‘ad’. But ‘ad’ doesn’t cover the spectrum and the nuance of everything that happens on social media that speaks to commercial relationships.”

“No one wants to watch an ad anymore”

The fault lines that Bull exposed indicate what surely must be an inevitable shift in advertising content. On one level, this will be shown by seeing a reduction in production values. She says: “Audiences are becoming smarter. Once they see those high production values, they know it’s an ad.” As a result, content that mimics throwaway, organic content will continue to rise. She also highlights the work of the aforementioned Jack Joseph as someone who produces commercial work that doesn’t impinge on users: “Jack Joseph does product placement incredibly well.” A recent ad, since deleted, was a continuation of a series about learning a new card game. In the back of the frame was the pizza box of the sponsor. Says Bull: “There was absolutely no mention of the product or the brand in the entire video. And I think we’ll see much more of that. No one wants to watch an ad anymore.”


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♬ original sound – Alice | Influencer Marketing

As a result, brands, essentially, are going to have to get used to not being in the room anymore. “I think it is really uncomfortable for brands to relinquish control. But if you provide a creator with a six-page brief, they’ll have no space to be creative themselves.”

Since the controversy, Bull has been deluged with messages and comments from marketeers and business owners asking questions and seeking clarification, as well as abuse from creator fans, accusing her of spoiling TikTok and Mean Girl behaviour. She also tells me about a comment she received from someone who makes user generated content for the brand she works for and discloses it as an “ad”. Says Bull: “This employee is creating TikTok content for her company, but they have interpreted the ASA legislation as they are being paid to create that content. So, to be on the safe side, they’re declaring everything. It’s just wild that there are people on such opposite ends of the spectrum. I think there needs to be a huge tightening up of the rules or they need to be made easier to follow, as this world is changing.”

Bull will continue to provide analysis but, she says, she is not suited to what her husband called her “influencer takedowns”. “My nerves couldn’t handle it.” In the end, she took all the other videos down as well, bar the Canham ones, including her films exposing the inconsistent practices of the likes of Munya Chawawa and Steven Bartlett, because people were just arguing in the comments. “I don’t think I’m made for crusades,” she says. But the events of the last few weeks haven’t put her off TikTok or making videos about the creator economy. When I ask who she thinks is a shining example of ad disclosure, she laughs: “I have been looking for one since this whole thing kicked off. I haven’t found one yet. I will just have to keep looking.”

By Emilie McMeekan, CORQ features director. Picture credit: Alice Bull