It is, however, significantly more complicated than that. “Social-media-influencer political ads are definitely in the gray zone of the law, and I think that’s being charitable,” says Bonnie Patten, executive director of the nonprofit Truth in Advertising. The Federal Trade Commission requires influencers who partner with brands on commercial posts to disclose to their followers that they are being paid to advertise, which is why anyone following a Kardashian or two will notice an #ad tag on their posts shilling laxatives or prescription medication. Political ads are governed by the Federal Election Commission, though, not the FTC. The FEC hasn’t laid out a coherent set of rules for internet-based political advertising, beyond requiring certain disclosures. Individual platforms have been crafting their own policies around political ads, though many of them are still in flux. (TikTok, for example, recently banned political ads altogether.) That means influencers looking to get political currently exist in a confusing no-#ads-land.
The ambiguity is making many marketing companies uncertain about how to proceed. Tribe, for example, chose to collect the photos and videos its influencers made for Bloomberg internally rather than encouraging them to upload content directly to social media. This way, the firm avoided parsing out each platform’s fluctuating rules. “We deduced that it wasn’t clear enough to proceed down that path, so we kept it as a content campaign,” Svirskis says. Since the Daily Beast article was published, says, Tribe has received offers from additional campaigns, but he isn’t sure the company wants to dive into political content in a big way. “We have to tread carefully.”
Influencer marketing company ViralNation has been approached by several political campaigns according to its CEO, Joe Gagliese, but chose to turn down opportunities out of a similar sense of caution. “We just weren’t at a place where we felt comfortable doing it,” he says. Now, however, his company is close to launching a dedicated political wing at the end of this month. “We’ve done so much preparation,” Gagliese says. “I’m still nervous about it.”
Mae Karwowski, the CEO of influencer agency Obvious.ly, is also wary of jumping into the political arena. “Worst-case scenario, you get someone who doesn’t care about politics, talking because they’re getting paid. That’s such a disservice to the country.”
Transparency will be crucial for companies that do get involved, especially as the exact rules about when influencers have to tell people they’re posting an ad are also up in the air. It’s not clear, for example, whether an influencer who accepts a plane ticket to visit a candidate or other nonmonetary compensation would have to then disclose that to their audience if they went on to promote them. This means many of the influencer marketing firms are interpreting the guidelines as they see fit. “Disclosure is going to be key,” Gagliese says.
Even with disclosure, sticky situations may arise. KaleSalad, the Instagram account Bloomberg enlisted, is the work of BuzzFeed employee Samir Mezrahi. Shortly after KaleSalad posted its Bloomberg ad, a former BuzzFeed employee wondered on Twitter how it had been permitted. “This deal was done between the campaign and KaleSalad exclusively—which is allowed under the guidelines of our Creators Program. The employee who oversees the Salad is not a News employee,” BuzzFeed director of communications Matt Mittenthal told WIRED by email. (BuzzFeed’s newsroom, BuzzFeed News, is kept separate and subject to different guidelines than other divisions.) The company’s decision to allow non-News staff to accept money for political ads has created consternation in the office, according to a BuzzFeed staffer.