‘Sneaky tactics’: Social media influencers face backlash for seeking free meals, undeclared ads

"Do the right thing and pay for your meal, like everyone else," Adelaide chef Duncan Welgemoed told a would-be 'influencer'.

"Do the right thing and pay for your meal, like everyone else," Adelaide chef Duncan Welgemoed told a would-be 'influencer'. Photo: Getty

Australia’s social media ‘influencers’ are facing a backlash for a litany of sins ranging from soliciting free meals to flouting alcohol advertising guidelines.

The practices and promotional tactics used by food and drink bloggers, which have become a phenomenon on photo-sharing app Instagram, are coming under increasing scrutiny from critics – from public health experts to restaurateurs.

Last week, the head chef and owner of one of Adelaide’s top restaurants named and shamed a reality TV contestant-turned-influencer who requested a free meal in exchange for posting photos on Instagram.

Africola chef Duncan Welgemoed posted the exchange with My Kitchen Rules contestant Andy Vignati on his Instagram account, garnering scores of supportive comments from fellow chefs and hospitality industry workers.

“We would love to come over on Saturday for dinner … In exchange, I can post food shots and stories on my Instagram page. I’ve got a very high engagement rate,” Vignati wrote to Welgemoed.

“How about you do the right thing and pay for your meal, like everyone else?” he shot back.

You do not generate any hype nor actual dollars for any business you post about. The ATO, suppliers, nor staff care about exposure.”

Vignati retorted that, “Having photos of your dishes reaching over 10,000 potentially new customers in exchange for a couple of meals is extremely good value”.

While partnering with a popular social media identity may be valuable for some businesses, the rise of influencers has created tension in the hospitality industry, Swinburne University Associate Professor of Marketing Sean Sands said.

“From a restaurant’s perspective there can be benefits in partnering with these channels. But for business owners, they may think they’re being taken for a ride by people just wanting something for free,” Dr Sands said.

A lack of transparency about whether a blogger has been paid, or received goods or services, in exchange for posting about a business is another “potential downside” of the burgeoning influencer industry.

“There’s no rules or regulations that really guide influencers in the way they talk about partnerships,” Dr Sands said.

The problem is that if you’re following an influencer you’re not necessarily aware that person’s being sponsored.

“It bridges the line between knowing whether something’s an ad, or actual life.”

Alcohol brands ‘sneaky’ marketing tactics exposed

Research released this week exposed the lucrative, but largely undeclared, relationship between Australia’s top Instagram influencers and the alcohol industry.

The study by health promotion foundation VicHealth looked at how many of Australia’s top 70 influencers had collaborated with an alcohol brand in the past 12 months.

Photo: VicHealth

Researchers found alcohol was frequently featured in Instagram posts “in an editorial context”, with 73 per cent of the influencers featuring alcoholic drinks in their posts over that time period.

Despite the prevalence of alcoholic drinks, only 26 per cent of the influencers featured a “fully disclosed” sponsored alcohol collaboration with a brand.

“There is little consistency in the disclosure of paid collaborations. The ‘paid partnership’ Instagram feature was rarely used for alcohol collaborations,” the report said.

While influencers would use hashtags to denote a sponsored post, others did not disclose a paid collaboration but instead used the official campaign hashtags, which denoted a paid partnership, the report said.

Some posts had hallmarks of a collaboration with no clear disclosure.”

VicHealth manager of alcohol and tobacco Emma Saleeba said the lack of transparency was concerning because it made it hard for young people, who are primarily the targets of these tactics, to discern when they are being sold an ad or whether it’s a genuine post.

“The alcohol industry will use any tactics to sneak into the lives of young people,” she said.

“We think most people would prefer to know if an Instagram influencer is being paid.”

Alcohol advertising in Australia is largely governed by the industry-regulated Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code.

“That’s not working well based on our analysis. It’s an industry-run code. There are no sanctions for breaches and it’s voluntary,” Ms Saleeba said.

“There is a need for proper regulation and sanctions for non-compliance, and you would find that would lift everyone’s game.”

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