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fake sponsored posts, sponconAspiring Instagram influencers are flooding the network with fake sponsored content. The posts look remarkably like paid-for ads. They praise products and include branded hashtags and wording designed to mimic real sponsored content. A photo of a cup of coffee will include a caption with something like: “I love xyz coffee because of ab and c.”

But they’re not advertisements. An article in The Atlantic explains why people post content designed to look like ads

Young Instagram users know influences receive healthy incomes as well as free products. But becoming a bona fide influencer is challenging. Besides thousands of followers and appealing content, brands want to see evidence of their previous sponsored campaigns. Landing the first job is typically the hardest. The solution for would-be online influencers: fake sponsored posts.

The Search for Street Cred

In the past, fans viewed pushing products as selling out. Now they consider it a sign of success, something to emulate. Sponsored posts bring respect or “street cred.”

“People pretend to have brand deals to seem cool,” one teen told the Atlantic. “It’s a thing, like, I got this for free while all you losers are paying.”

One aspiring influencer portrayed her vacation to Miami as an exclusive press trip. She posted plenty of photos at restaurants with captions like: “Thanks so much XYZ restaurant for the hospitality!” The wording intentionally implied a relationship with the brand.

One influencer said the “SponCon” game has become so prevalent she can’t tell who’s endorsed a brand and who’s faking. Federal Trade Commission guidelines require influencers to disclose sponsored posts, but many ignore the rules.

SponCon Risks for Brands

Some may think brands would love Instagram users who promote their products for free, but PR and marketing experts fear the dangers they pose brands. Marketers must already beware of influencers who inflate advertising fees with fake followers. Now, marketers can be tricked into partnering with someone because of their fake ad campaigns.

Some PR and marketing pros fear a stream of low-quality content about their brands without their approval or control. Fake brand ambassadors could a damage company’s reputation with profanity, racism or culturally insensitive comments.

“This is a scenario that soon may be faced by more brands,” warns Arik Hanson, principal of ACH Communications. “And it’s pretty darn scary.”

Possible PR & Marketing Solutions

Hanson and other experts suggest these actions to counter the danger.

Before partnering with an influencer, check with brands to verify if posts were actually sponsored. If complete due diligence isn’t possible, consider shifting the responsibility to an influencer platform.

Add language into influencer agreements prohibiting fake sponsored content from existing anywhere within the influencer’s account.

Increase social media monitoring to scan for the brand’s products and hashtags more closely on influencer accounts. Companies can consider sending a cease and desist letter, although some brands fear that demanding a takedown could create ill will and draw unwanted attention.

“This does not mean that a brand must send a cease and desist letter each time an influencer tags them in their post,” Allison Fitzpatrick, a partner at Davis and Gilbert LLP, Attorneys at Law, told PR News “but rather in instances where the influencer tries to promote his or her content as sponsored by the brand, when that is not the case. More policing of this practice should lead to greater honesty and transparency in the entire industry.”

Create a page on your website that lists all the influencers you’re currently working with, Hanson suggests. When you find a fake ad, copy and paste the URL and respond on the post with something like, “Thanks for the post and brand love, but these are the current brand influencers we’re working with. To be considered, please send us a note at XXXX.”

While the strategy would require a time commitment and ongoing social media monitoring, it could stymie the growing trend. “And, if you’re working in the influencer marketing world at all right now, I’d suggest getting in front of this now. While you can,” he urges.

Bottom Line: Fake sponsored posts, already alarmingly common on Instagram, pose a reputational risk for brands. PR and marketing teams can take steps to mitigate those threats.