We have all scrolled through social media and come across a witty post shared by a friend. Perhaps it references a favorite TV show or speaks to your current mood. If you were intrigued enough to click on it, you may have been surprised to discover it is actually an ad for fast food, fashion or even gambling. These ads – which have no apparent connection to the product and which are not overtly trying to sell you something – are called content marketing, and the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Agency (“ASA”) recently decided that most of these ads fall within its and the UK’s regulations. 

While the ASA made this decision in relation to ads promoting gambling, specifically, an ASA spokesperson revealed that the result is actually much broader, stating, “Our remit applies in the same way to advertising for all sectors, so the statement we published for gambling reflects how we would approach content marketing from other industries, such as alcohol brands or fast food chains. The vast majority of social media content from marketers is within our remit and therefore, subject to our rules.” This could cause a major shift in the types of ads we see online.

Content marketing is everywhere on social media – big names, like supermarket chain Aldi and sports brand Nike, use it with great success. Forbes Magazine has suggested that brands should invest up to a third of their overall marketing budgets in this type of advertising, with other research showing the average among North American companies is close at 26 percent. And it is no wonder this form of advertising is becoming more popular, when it generates three times as many leads as other types of marketing yet costs 62 percent less to produce.

But if you are still wondering what content marketing is, that is not necessarily by accident. Content marketing ads are designed to go under the radar, so that you may not actually notice a funny meme has been posted by a brand – in this case, the fashion retailer ASOS … 

While the main purpose of content marketing is to enhance brand awareness and reputation, and ultimately, increase sales, the big benefit for the companies is that these ads are designed to make you do the work. By sharing, liking, or commenting, social media users are readily expanding the brand’s audience via the myriad networks of social media users. You may not do this for a “Buy 2 for 1” supermarket ad, but an image of a cute cat next to a fan posted during a national heatwave could be a different story. 

An ASOS tweet

Of course, the idea behind content marketing is that you will make the brand connection subconsciously, as will everyone in your network who you share it with. This will create a positive relationship with the brand. Research shows that these positive emotions will strengthen every time you (subconsciously) see funny or cute content from the same brand, eventually leading you to start consuming its products. It is a sneaky – but very powerful – form of advertising, but it is also one that is changing.

New Content, Same Regulations

Until July 2022, the ASA did not recognize content marketing as a form of advertising, so its regulations, such as the Advertising Standards Code, did not apply to such ads. This meant that, in theory, content marketing posts from gambling firms could feature children; alcohol brands could encourage drinking and driving; and fast food chains could target kids, all without breaking any advertising regulations. While encouraging drinking and driving is a far cry from a funny cat meme, regulation of social media content marketing ads is crucial. For one thing, these posts can be deceptive since most people do not realize they are advertising something. They can bypass the cognitive defenses we all use when we see an ad to protect us from buying unnecessary stuff. 

A Burger King tweet

The effects of this missing link are more harmful for certain products or services. Gambling, for example, is known to be addictive, and so, a traditional gambling ad will get most people’s alarm bells ringing. But if gambling companies use content marketing, users may engage with the post without even thinking and eventually follow the account. Once this happens, they will be exposed to more of the account’s content – not just the funny memes but also the highly appealing, immediate-action ads encouraging users to “click here for a free bet.” 

We know that this is happening on a large scale, which we uncovered in a study of more than 888,000 gambling ads on Twitter. In connection with that study, we found that around 40 percent of those ads were content marketing and many were highly appealing to children.

After mounting pressure from academic publications, a debate in the UK House of Lords, and media attention, including an episode of comedian Joe Lycett´s Channel 4 show Got Your Back, the UK regulator has stepped in to expand its rules to content marketing. The ASA now recognizes that most content marketing posts are actually ads, and that all existing advertising codes should apply to these posts. This means that posts like the overheated cat could still appear in your social media feed, but such ads will now have to adhere to all regulations. For gambling, fast food or alcohol brands, this could mean that companies cannot use content marketing at all without breaching regulations. Our previous research, for example, showed that 11 out of 12 gambling content marketing posts were strongly appealing to children — something not allowed under the existing regulations for adverts.

Looking beyond gambling and fast food-centric ads, the regulator’s new stance on content marketing is a seismic shift in advertising regulations. Nonetheless, the real work has just begun, as the expansion also brings up new issues. Enforcement will be tricky, for example, considering all users’ social media feeds are different, and content marketing pieces are often posted briefly and then spread by users, not advertisers. But the most fundamental question will be whether, under these new regulations, it is even possible to post content marketing that is not obviously recognizable as such. 

The whole point of content marketing is that we do not recognize it, otherwise we likely would not share it. This breaks one of the first rules of advertising standards, of course; so, presumably, every content marketing piece will have to be marked “ad” or “sponsored” so that we recognize it, making it considerably less cool to share. As such, this regulation could kill off the practice of content marketing completely or at the very least, dim its appeal significantly, which could be a good thing. Memes can be cute and funny, but using them to dupe consumers is sneaky, deceptive and potentially very harmful.

Raffaello Rossi is a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bristol. 

Agnes Nairn is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Bristol. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)