The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has begun a crackdown on Twitter users and bloggers using their online presence to endorse products and companies without clearly stating their relationship with the brand. In the first of its kind, the OFT has brought a case against a PR firm that was discovered to be paying bloggers to write effusively about its clients. The watchdog is insisting that it must clearly state when promotional comments have been paid for. In a statement, the OFT said online advertising and marketing that did not disclose paid-for promotions were 'deceptive' under fair trading rules. This includes comments about services and products on blogs and microblogs such as Twitter. Celebrity twitter endorsements are already big business in the US, where the US Federal Trade Commission insists that such endorsements must contain the words 'ad' or 'spon' to show the reference has been paid for. Such a requirement does not currently exist in the UK.
It is a business that could boom in the UK, after Range Rover became one of the first companies to dip its toe in the water. It recently signed up 40 stars – including ex-GMTV host Ben Shephard and model Daisy Lowe – to drive the new Evoque 4x4 and tell their followers about the experience, according to Marketing Week. Complimentary tweets about the cars have appeared on Twitter. In November, fashion designer Henry Holland, who has 133,035 followers, tweeted, 'CAN'T WAIT FOR MY NEW RANGE ROVER... !!!' – November 24. ‘It’s the dream! Waiting for me in the car park! – December 2.
A Range Rover spokesman appeared to confirm to the Mail on Sunday today that the company had an arrangement with certain celebrities. He said, ‘We have a number of schemes for VIPs where we can enter into a contract for certain returns in return for them driving our vehicles. We enlisted the help of a number of people with high profiles on Twitter. They get the loan of a vehicle which they can use, drive around and take pictures of.'
When asked if the loan of the vehicles was subsidised, the spokesperson said, ‘It’s not free but we can’t disclose the figures of how much individuals pay because it depends on their contracts and what we’re asking them to do. Under the terms of the deal they Tweet. That’s the idea. They Tweet about the car.’
Rav Wilding (11,227 followers), Range Rover; ‘Had thick snow and then a puncture on the M25! So lucky to be in my car. It ate the snow and got me back with 3 tyres!’ - November 30. Rav’s spokesman denied any agreement to Tweet about the car under Range Rover’s VIP lease scheme.
According to The Guardian, a different Range Rover spokesman later denied that the company gave incentives to celebrities to tweet about its cars.
Media commentator Mark Borkowski said there was little doubt that celebrity endorsements would become increasingly common in the UK. He believes the industry could follow the example of the US where the number of followers a celebrity has determines how much their 'advertising space' is worth. 'But celebrities endorsing products had to be honest and open,' he said, 'If people are open and there is a conversation about it, then fine. The problems come when people endorse covertly, that puts the whole thing into jeopardy. In that case the OFT would have to intervene, although twitter users themselves might be better arbiters. People can see through these things, and having the twitter cloud against you is a powerful thing.'