UK competition watchdog invites industry to report undisclosed advertising

UK competition watchdog invites industry to report undisclosed advertising

The Competition and Markets Authority is encouraging travel firms to report any reviews, blogs or vlogs that do not disclose that they are paid for advertising.

The watchdog says it sees the potential of online word of mouth to help all sorts of sectors work better.

However over the last 18 months it has begun a crackdown on content that has the potential to mislead the general public.

The CMA carried out a review and published a report last June setting out its areas of concern and since has taken five enforcement cases, although none in travel.

One of those was against an agency called Social Chain which operated over 50 Twitter accounts, some with over a million followers, that arranged ‘thunderclap’ promotions with celebrity endorsements.

Jon Riley, project director at the CMA, said fake reviews or unlabeled advertising in travel can distort the picture presented to consumers.

“Blogs and vlogs and all this opinion-based information available to consumer when they are making big purchases are a really important tools across many parts of the economy.

“It’s really important when people read it that they can see the full picture. Our focus has been on preventing practices that distort that information.”

Riley said a legal case had not yet been brought in travel but that he would encourage Travolution readers who have information to come forward.

“The tricky thing is with these practices is that the whole idea is that they look a genuine opinion of the person writing them.

“We rely on insiders coming to come to us and tell us what’s going on. We are an enforcement body and we have to look at where the evidence is strongest where there is particular harm to consumers.

“Clearly reviews play a huge role in the decision making in travel but increasingly blogs and vlogs do to.”

Riley said there was a misperception that less rigorous standards apply to online compared to mainstream media and that it was advisable to be as upfront as possible.

That includes whether a direct payment was made to write about or talk about a product or if a gift was received or if the writer or vlogger was not charged.

However the CMA said there is a distinction between a salaried or freelance journalist being paid to write a review for a particular article with an editorial angle and a vlogger or blogger appearing to offer their authentic personal opinions.

This puts potentially greater onus on the blogger or vlogger to be absolutely clear about the relationship between themselves and the firm offering the product they are promoting.

“You have to think about why the consumer is reading this information, usually not because they want to read an advert but because they want someone’s information,” said Riley.

Riley added: “Clearly there is a view in a number of different sectors that working with bloggers or vloggers is a really important way to get you message out.

“There’s nothing wrong with that as long as a business issues clear instructions about exactly what they need to do to label things properly and they check when it’s published.

“If people raise issues with us and we think there’s a potential breach in the law we will look at it closely. This is an area we are looking at more and more.”

The CMA has civil powers to force firms to agree to not continue operating in certain ways.

Riley said firms that continue to break the law could face criminal prosecution with serious consequences including unlimited fines and even prison sentences for the managing director.

The CMA has produced guidance for firms that can be downloaded from its website.

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