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Instagram influencers are still sneaking ads to millions of followers, groups say

What's an ad and what's not? That's often unclear on Instagram, some groups are arguing.

If someone is advertising to you, you should know it, right? It should be clear that this photo or video is a paid promotion.

That's been the rub on Instagram recently: influencers who reach millions of people with their accounts post paid endorsements – but don't make it clear the posts are basically ads.

The FTC, which is in charge of protecting consumers from unfair practices, sent a letter to 90 influencers and advertisers earlier this year, telling them to knock it off. (Putting "#partner" beneath line after line of hashtags isn't enough, for example.)

Well a group of consumer rights watchdogs tracked 46 influencer accounts after those letters had been sent out – including Diddy, Heidi Klum, Zendaya, and Luke Bryan – and found most of them were still being sneaky with the endorsement posts.

It's 'misleading and deceiving' Instagram users

The three watchdog groups that followed up on this are Public Citizen, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and Center for Digital Democracy. Leaders from each organization sent a letter to the FTC detailing their findings, and asking the agency to penalize the influencers and brands that continue to skirt the rules.

The groups looked at 412 Instagram posts that included sponsored content from the 46 influencers, dated May 1 through June 12, and marked whether it included a disclosure that met the FTC's guidelines.

Anybody who is promoting a product they got for free, or is doing so for an endorsement/marketing deal, or has any other kind of “material connection” to the product, has to say that in a clear and easy-to-see way, the FTC explains.

Of those posts reviewed, 327 didn't make it clear a post was an ad, while 87 did follow the guidelines.

Instagram by the way recently announced a new feature that will allow brands and influencers to clearly mark whether something is a paid promotion at the top of the post.

A few examples

Included in the letter are examples from nearly all the influencers. Here's one from Vanessa Hudgens, who has 26.1 million Instagram followers. The consumer groups say this is a Whispering Angel sponsored post. It was also the only one they dinged Hudgens for:

And then there's this one from singer/songwriter Nicky Jam, which throws an @BombergColombia on there for his 18.8 million followers – but the FTC has said it needs to be clearer:

Or you get these sneaky ones where a fashion brand is just tagged, like from Bella Thorne (15.8 million followers) and DollsKill:

These are all promotional, the groups argue, yet their millions of followers don't realize they're seeing an ad.

The groups say in a news release most of the products have to do with fashion, beauty or fitness and target younger consumers. But they're "designed to blend in with users’ normal content, making it nearly impossible for consumers to distinguish a marketing ploy from a genuine recommendation."

They continue: "For young women in particular, deceptive influencer marketing contributes to unrealistic and harmful standards of beauty and health."

The letter also uses this MediaKix study, which came to a similar conclusion, to back up its point. The study found more than 90 percent of celebrity social media endorsements don't meet the FTC's guidelines.

The groups ask the FTC to work with Instagram to establish good habits, and come up with a clearer solution – like putting a red outline around paid posts, for example.

Consumerist reached out to the FTC for comment. The agency said it's reviewing the letter.

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