Product placement, sponsored content and influencer marketing are hardly new phenomena as the advertising world works nonstop to keep pace with the internet.
Disclosure of sponsored content isn’t difficult. It’s as simple as adding a “sponsored content” tag on a blog post, an adequately transparent product plug by a YouTube celebrity or even a rapid-fire reading of the fine print — anything that informs the audience that what they’re consuming isn’t completely impartial.
Keying customers into sponsored content isn’t a bad thing. Consider Spotify’s branded playlists or Alibaba recruiting its APASS members for marketing purposes. Both are clear and present branded campaigns — and they still draw crowds. Millions subscribe to various brand-sponsored playlists, and a webcasted, sponsored Italian vacation for APASS members drew 400,000 unique views and boosted online sales.
But not every brand plays that way.
Most recently, it has come to light that international food manufacturer Kellogg’s was less-than-honest when it came to the impartiality of its former “Breakfast Council.” In session from 2011 until May 2016, the Breakfast Council was a group of allegedly independent nutrition experts that worked with Kellogg's to bring consumers healthy breakfast cereal options.
But as it turns out, the independent experts weren’t so much working with Kellogg's as much as they were working for them. The experts were reportedly paid an average of $13,000 annually to engage in “nutrition influencer outreach” on social media or with colleagues. They were also prohibited from offering media services for products “competitive or negative to cereal.”
So, what’s the big deal? It’s advertising — most consumers know by now to take marketing claims with a grain of salt.
The problem here is that the nutrition experts weren’t just used to tout Corn Flakes on Twitter or hold a sponsored event with free bowls of cereal. Kellogg’s used the cultural capital that expertise holds to hold influence beyond the marketing space.
The “independent” experts, for example, taught a continuing education class for dietitians, published an academic paper on cereal in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and worked to influence the government's dietary guidelines while working for Kellogg’s — and all while under the guise of impartiality.
It’s like when Coca-Cola shelled out funding for obesity research that, unsurprisingly, downplayed the role of caloric intake and hardly mentioned sugar or soda. It is a major conflict of interest that casts doubt on all results. Brand ambassadors are not the same as independent experts — and to act otherwise is misleading.
Big Food as a whole, and especially less-than-healthy products, have been on the chopping block since the fight against the obesity epidemic and the consumer push for organic groceries went mainstream. So, what’s a major brand to do?
Think back to the controversy surrounding the “Big Food Conspiracy” in early 2016. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) was accused of illegally hiding the names of its donors funding the opposition to Initiative 522 — a law that would have required GMOs to be identified on a product’s label. Among the top donors to GMA were Pepsi, who contributed $1.7 million, and Nestlé USA, who donated $1.1 million. General Mills and Coke gave $646,000 and $565,000, respectively. Hershey, Kellogg's, Campbell and Smucker’s were also on the donor list. Dishonesty might just be the name of the game here.
But as millennials and post-millennials continue to be more discerning and wary of marketing tactics than previous generations (and remain largely enigmatic to marketers), you would think that the best move a brand, marketer or influencer could make is to be honest and upfront when sponsorship or paid endorsement is involved.
You know, to avoid backlash or fostering further distrust within the very consumer base brands hope to rope in by feigning impartiality. Especially since consumers have easy access to a compendium of instant information and crowdsourced knowledge, you would think that transparency would be key. Customers aren’t convinced to fork over cash to a brand they distrust.