Disclosing or Disguising Influencer Marketing on Instagram?

by Céline Müller
Thesis supervisor: dr. Sophie Boerman

With 895 million monthly-active users worldwide (Kemp, 2019), Instagram has become highly relevant for brands to reach young audiences, who are difficult to approach via traditional advertising (Domingues Aguiar & Van Reijmersdal, 2018). The social media platform facilitates targeted access to consumers via so-called influencers. Influencers are users who are often paid by brands to endorse their products and incorporate commercial content into editorial posts (De Veirman & Hudders, 2019). This way, users may be fooled into thinking that the posts reflect personal opinions, making it difficult for them to recognize advertising (Evans, Phua, Lim, & Jun, 2017; Coursaris, Van Osch, & Kourganoff, 2018). Therefore, regulatory parties, such as The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), recommend the use of explicit sponsorship disclosures. However, only one in four influencers on Instagram disclose commercial posts with clear disclosures, that comply with FTC regulations. Instead, brand mentions and (hash-)tags often indicate influencers’ collaboration with brands. To date, it is unclear whether users have learned to use such cues to identify advertising.

Besides helpful elements in the post, Coursaris et al. (2018) found that consumers are more likely to recognize ads by ‘Instagrammers’ with many followers. Supposedly, users are aware that celebrities or popular influencers are often paid to endorse a product or brand. Accordingly, the necessity of disclosures may be contingent on whether users expect influencer marketing by a particular ‘Instagrammer’. Further, ad recognition is known to affect consumers’ responses towards the persuasive message, the influencer and the advertised brand (i.e. De Veirman & Hudders, 2019; Evans et al., 2017). Thus, the second aim of this thesis was to detect whether influencer types function as a cue for ad recognition and whether the elements found to be helpful in the first study – be it explicit disclosures or vague cues – entail consequences on users’ reactions towards the post, its sender and the brand.

Research Design and Innovativeness
With an eye-tracking experiment, my thesis first clarified whether Instagram users recognize influencer marketing and which disclosures or cues they use to do so with a 4 (disclosure: ‘Paid partnership’-label, #ad, #paidad, none) x 4 (cue: brand tag in picture, #brand, @brand, brand mention in caption) within-subjects experiment (N = 60).

By considering both the effectiveness of explicit disclosures and ambiguous, but widely-used, cues on users’ ad recognition, this study unprecedently adapted to reality. Using eye-tracking allows to literally see whether specific disclosures or cues catch users’ attention longer than others. Eye-tracking data is particularly useful since it reveals what consumers pay attention to as they scroll through an Instagram feed. State-of-the-art research on sponsorship disclosures on social media predominantly relies upon self-reported measures of attention, which are less accurate compared to physiological data. This thesis used a more innovative approach by actually measuring eye movements, which play a crucial role in understanding which disclosure or cue attract attention most effectively (Boerman, Van Reijmersdal, & Neijens, 2015; Josephson & Miller, 2015).

For further insights, I conducted an online experiment (N = 433) with a 4 (disclosure/cue: ‘Paid partnership’-label, #paidad, brand tag in picture, no disclosure) x 2 (influencer: macro-influencer, nano-influencer) between-subjects design based on the findings of the eye-tracking study. This second study detected whether influencer types function as a cue for ad recognition and, whether the elements found to increase ad recognition in the first study affect users’ reactions towards the post, the influencer and the advertised brand.

Main Findings
The findings demonstrate that both disclosures and cues increase users’ ad recognition, allowing them to identify more than two thirds of commercial posts. Importantly, a brand tag in the picture was second most effective in increasing ad recognition, preceded only by Instagram’s ‘Paid Partnership’-label. Thus, a cue that is not acknowledged by FTC as a sufficient disclosure, appears to be a helpful element for Instagram users to identify ads. These finding suggest that not only disclosures but also cues increase ad recognition and , consequently, affect consumers’ cognitive and evaluative responses.

Moreover, posts by macro-influencers compared to nano-influencers are more likely to be recognized as an advertisement. Furthermore, increased ad recognition leads to increased brand recall and to higher skepticism towards the post, with the latter resulting in lower influencer trustworthiness, brand attitudes and purchase intention.

Boerman, S. C., Van Reijmersdal, E. A., & Neijens, P. C. (2015). Using eye tracking to understand the effects of brand placement disclosure types in television programs. Journal of Advertising, 44(3), 196-207.
Coursaris, C. K., Van Osch, W., & Kourganoff, C. (2018, December 13). Designing the Medium and the Message for Sponsorship Recognition on Social Media: The Interplay of Influencer Type, Disclosure Type, and Consumer Culture. Paper presented at the Sixteenth Annual Pre-ICIS Workshop on HCI Research in MIS, San Francisco.
De Veirman, M., & Hudders, L. (2019). Disclosing sponsored Instagram posts: the role of material connection with the brand and message-sidedness when disclosing covert advertising. International Journal of Advertising, 1-36.
Domingues Aguiar, T., & Van Reijmersdal, E. A. (2018). Influencer Marketing. Amsterdam: SWOCC.
Evans, N. J., Phua, J., Lim, J., & Jun, H. (2017). Disclosing Instagram influencer advertising: The effects of disclosure language on advertising recognition, attitudes, and behavioral intent. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 17(2), 138-149.
Josephson, S., & Miller, J. S. (2015). Just state the facts on Twitter: Eye tracking shows that readers may ignore questions posted by news organizations on Twitter but not on Facebook. Visual Communication Quarterly, 22(2), 94-105.
Kemp, S. (2019). Digital 2019. Essential Insights Into How People Around The World Use The Internet, Mobile Devices, Social Media, And E-Commerce. Retrieved from https://p.widencdn.net/kqy7ii/Digital2019-Report-en