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The Murky World of #SPON

“They wonder if you could change your hashtag. Instead of SPONSORED, they say, could you write AD?”*

“We’ve had a call. They’d like you to take out SPONSORED from the post. Apparently, they don’t like the way it looks.”

“They’re keen for it to look natural, so they’ve asked if you could avoid SPONSORED and instead hashtag COLLABORATION.”

All variations on the same thing – and just a few of the things that have been phrased ‘delicately’, via my long-suffering agent, in the last few months. All mean exactly the same thing: please don’t tell people we paid you to post this. Please pretend you just happened to post it. And every time, my answer is the same.

No.

There is nothing more disingenuous than a gazillion dollar brand asking you to make it look like they haven’t paid you to create content on their behalf. It’s worse than I Just Woke Up Like This. It’s like moving to Monaco to avoid tax. It’s gross and dishonest and exploitative. In a world of hashtag SPON, what the brand wants is to look authentic. The irony of it all is enough to strike you dumb: stripping authenticity in order to look more authentic.

And therein we have the murky world of #spon.

And I’m not the only one this is happening to. “What a mess this whole online content world still feels sometimes. I thought we were past this idiocy” tweeted writer and founder of fashion-sharing network WIWT.com, Poppy Dinsey. “Have twice been offered sponsored work recently on sole condition I *wouldn’t* declare it sponsored. I know the rules are shady but COME ON.”

It was a good 18 months ago that the discerning observers of social media might, well, observe that bloggers/celebrities/reality stars (essentially anyone with a recognisably large following) were being paid to produce content (exact amount varying depending on producer. Some, like a square-by-square modern-day version of Evangelista, won’t post a picture without sponsorship). This article, from the sassy young American blogger Danielle Bernstein, last year, blew the lid. There’s a shit load of cash to be had, she said cheerfully, and here’s quite how much. In the aftermath, Kate Spicer wrote a piece for The Sunday Times Style about how digital influencers make their money. It’s become a buzzword, of sorts, “Taylor Swift is like human branded content” tweeted @Chelsea_Fagan on the 5th July.

Eighteen months ago, the idea of paid social media content as a business model was brave new territory – by now, everyone’s got their head around it. Do I do it? Hell yeah. I work my ass off. Why would I not expect payment for that? You know that, I know that, the brands know that. Leandra Medine, founder of blog turned media company ManRepeller is all about owning a big fat SPON. “I’m proud of the partnerships we execute! They’re good stuff! Thoughtfully done and with some available capital to increase production quality that we otherwise wouldn’t really have” she told me, late on Sunday night. In a recent ManRepeller discussion, Kate Barnett, the director of integrated marketing at MR, put it baldly: “I never want anyone to feel like they were “tricked” into reading a sponsored piece.”

Everyone knows that when they see a blogger wearing/styling/shooting branded content, that when they see a hashtag – they’ve been paid. It’s the same as seeing Cara Delevingne in a YSL advert and clocking that this is advertising. That’s exact what branded digital content is. Same thing. Different method, same effect. Why would a brand bother to hide this? We live in a Kardashian world. We are no more strangers to paid social content than we are to lip jobs.

As Barnett says – no-one wants to be tricked. So why doth the brands protest so much? Partly, due to the inevitable lack of mystery. Instagram is no longer the place for guerrilla marketing. It’s the basic bitch of farm-to-table branding; the most mainstream marketing channel out there; sponsored posts, straight-up mini ads. In a vlog called Spilling The Tea on Sponsored Content, vlogger GraceFVictory says, without any sort of guile, “I think I get [sponsored] work now because I guess I am ‘on trend’. [Being a] woman of colour; and being plus size, that’s, like, a thing. Press are hot on it and I fit both of those slots.” Talk about debunking the mystery. I really respect her for parlaying this. After all, as she says, “YouTube can be really bloody hard work. Like most jobs.”

Partly (part 2) it’s aesthetics. For a brand more tightly managed than a kitten’s asshole, even the minutae is paramount. In a way, I get it. As a writer, I’m way more bothered about my caption, than I am about the lighting. But let us still be aware, leaving the implicit creativity out of the equation, that this is a collusion of branding. Of their mega-brand and my small but lovingly formed personal brand. We’re all tired of the word the nomenclature of brands and personal brands; but it’s important not to lose site of the manufactured element. None of this happened by accident; it’s business. And as such, it must be represented thus.

I am personally invested in #SPON, because I am first and foremost a broadsheet journalist. “I just follow the official hashtags for the campaigns. Keeps it simple” said one blogger to me, reasonably. But I can’t – and don’t want to – take that risk. I’m giving up precious time around my job to work with brands that I like – but it’s still work. I have a duty to my newspaper editors to be crystal clear about when I have been paid by a brand, so as not to compromise my editorial integrity (and furthermore, theirs), but I also have a duty to anyone who follows me to relay things truthfully as well as a duty to myself to get paid for the shit I dream up on a Sunday night. I don’t do this for fun. I lie in the bath and drink a bubble tea, for fun.

The ASA is still yet to make any official rulings on whether brands and individuals need to declare when money has changed hands, via a hashtag. But I will never lie about when I’ve been paid to create content, because that would imply shame and I’m really not ashamed to admit that I’m paid to work. Are you? Thought not. Very often I’m not paid; I’m pretty picky, because I once saw a fashion blogger promote some chocolate and swore I’d never fall down the well. And quite frankly, I don’t want to work with brands who place these shady demands. They – and the paycheque – become immediately unappealing. And if they take the job away? Fuck it. I get to spend my drinking bubble tea a bubble bath.

* I don’t mind changing to AD – at least it denotes payment

Artwork by Natalia Bagniewska.

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