1. The legal framework in Italy does not provide for regulations specifically meant to govern marketing performed in an online environment. With every year bigger slices of ad budgets shifting to social media, lawmakers start to wonder whether the traditional principles and their implementing criteria, are still suitable to regulate all the new means and techniques used for diffusing commercial communication on online platforms.
2. Just as in many other countries, local experts recently started debating how one of the basic requirements, calling for all commercial communication to result transparent and immediately recognizable as such, could be efficiently implemented with respect to the peculiarities characterizing social media marketing. Just transferring the traditional requirements to social media, clearly did not appear as a viable solution, as there frequently was simply not enough space available on such media for inserting proper alerts, high lightening the advertising purpose of a message or a post.
3. In addition, the 'influencers' started to appear – or, better, to crowd – social networks, gathering huge numbers of followers and collecting increasing compensations from advertisers, interested in taking advantage of the hype these 'online VIPs' are capable to give to their products or services.
In absence of any specific regulation of influencers' promotional activities, things were getting out of hand and worries appeared on the horizon about an 'anything goes' scenario. A provision, contained in the Italian Consumer Code and considering as an unfair and illicit commercial practice the use of editorial content in commercial communication without proper information to the consumer about economic contributions, did not appear sufficient to prevent abuses in influencer marketing.
4. Therefore, the Italian Advertising Self-Regulation Organization (IAP) was the first to move and to address the problem through the recently released 'Digital Chart', a document meant both, to individuate the most common forms of commercial communication in use on the Internet as well as to assess how the problem of transparency and reconcilability of promotional messages is currently been dealt with in the digital context. The background idea behind the initiative is to provide – in a successive step - the Advertising Industry with guidelines and best practices to rely on, when allocating their commercial communication in this specific play field.
With respect to the role of 'influencers', the Digital Chart reminds that endorsement of brands, products or services performed through - or by - 'celebrities', 'influencers' (such as bloggers or vloggers) and 'user communities', needs to strictly comply with the Advertising Code's requirements both, on the use of 'testimonials' as well as on 'transparency'. According to such requirements, "Testimonials and other forms of recommendation of a product, with a promotional intention, should be distinguishable as such as well as authentic and responsible" (so Section 4 of the Code), while – as general principle (laid down in Section 7) – "Marketing communication must be clearly distinguishable as such. In the media and in the marketing communication when news and other editorial matter are presented to the public, it should be ensured that the marketing communication is readily distinguishable as such".
The Chart also deals with 'native advertising', resulting in 'in-feed units', 'paid search units' or 'recommendation widgets' and again stresses that the promotional intent must be made clear and immediately perceivable, through specific alerts, e.g. "Advertisement", "Promoted by", "Sponsored by", "Sponsored Content", "Suggested Post", "Sponsored Post", "Presented by". For paid search units, graphic distinctions (color, shading, etc.) may result suitable to the purpose.
5. Consumer protection groups had also given their attention to practices they considered as questionable 'hidden advertising', performed on blogs and social networks'. Specifically, they took issue with 'sponsored selfies' and other forms of 'disguised advertising', used by renown individuals - such as actors, models, TV VIPs - to promote brands among their followers in the context of their Internet presence.
Finally, their pressure succeeded in convincing the Italian House to vote an agenda committing the Government to act and to promote a regulation, specifically aimed at governing 'influencer marketing'.
Therefore, the 'anything goes' scenario is likely to come to a stop in a near future (political elections, set for 2018, permitting).
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