By Mylena Vazquez


There are so many different types of content—almost anything we consume online can be considered content. But content as we understand it in this day and age is an entirely different ball game.

With the rise of social media, content marketing has taken on a life of its own. Sponsored content that was once intrusive has now become elegantly weaved into our everyday online experience. But sometimes the placement is so seamless that it can become sneaky and off-putting. As marketers, how can we determine that “do not cross” line?

Sponcon practices of yesteryear

In 2016, sponsored content was everywhere. Buzzfeed made a name for itself by providing a space for brands to reach audiences in a creative new way. Companies like Wendy’s, king of the #sponcon game, took advantage of this, writing hangry tweet listicles to advertise their latest promotion.

But influencers were also on the rise, and brands saw huge potential in this nascent industry. Brands jumped on the opportunity to use influencers to promote their products in a more organic way, having them incorporate the product into their daily life. Because content marketing is evolving by the minute, this new form of product placement did not have to carry with it any sort of disclaimer that it was essentially an ad.

Content crackdown 

In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission caught up with the times and enacted laws that require influencers to clearly disclose sponsored content by using hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored, for example. It was a step in the right direction for combating deceptive marketing practices.

But the FTC is a United States institution; it doesn’t govern other countries. And, as we know, digital has all but erased national borders when it comes to marketing. As recently as 2021, Australian influencer Bella Varelis was found to be hiding the #ad disclosure in Instagram stories; she would place it underneath her profile pic icon, which disappears momentarily only when users press down to pause the story. Unlike the United States, Australia does not have laws regulating these types of disclosures. But just because it’s not illegal does not mean it isn’t ethically questionable.


Valuable content → valuable customer

Content is a way to provide value to your customer. And while I’m sure some people will find the link the a new swimsuit valuable, most consumers will surely feel duped by the deceptive hidden #ad placement.

What’s more effective is creating content so valuable for the reader that the disclosed sponsorship becomes almost a non-issue. Take the series of videos that Lonely Planet produced for GoPro. This is a sponsorship where the partnered companies make sense together. The content appeals to Lonely Planet consumers, who already enjoy this sort of content. It’s also beneficial for those considering buying a new camera to document their own travels. The fact that the videos are 

sponsored by GoPro is made obvious, yet the videos still have tens of thousands of views because the content itself is very valuable.

Ultimately, honesty really is the best policy. Marketers have an easy choice to make. We can either try to find increasingly complex and ethically ambiguous ways to market to our audience, or we can create truly valuable content and trust in our audience’s ability to recognize it and reward us by consuming it. After all, earned is better than bought!


Have you ever felt duped by deceptive sponsored content? What could that brand have done instead to engage you?

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