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Instagram Advertising: Do You Know It, When You See It?

In the photograph, Gretchen Altman is smiling, leaning back casually, a cup of coffee in hand — Hills Bros. Coffee, to be precise. It looks like a candid shot, but if you hit like, leave a comment, and tag a friend, you can get three different blends of brew, for free.

You've heard of influencers — social media celebrities with massive followings, who get paid to affect consumer tastes. Kim Kardashian, perhaps the most recognizable name in influencing, has more than 140 million Instagram followers and reportedly gets paid up to $1 million per post.

But Altman is part of a growing trend of "micro-influencers." She has a small following — around 6,000 on Instagram. Her going rate is $300 to $800 to promote something, which makes her much more affordable than a Kardashian.

And Altman does some posts in exchange for free goods, she says, as long as it's stuff she believes in. All this hasn't stopped her from working with major companies like Verizon or Walgreens.

Altman says that as a micro-influencer she has a much more intimate relationship with her followers than a big social media star.

"I'm just living a normal life and people relate to that," she says. "They just feel like I'm a friend of theirs."

And it works, says Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth In Advertising, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting consumers from deceptive ads and marketing.

"Consumers are very apt to buy things that they see being promoted on social media — especially by people they feel they have some authentic natural connection with," she says.

But this intimate relationship worries Patten and consumer rights groups. Several recent studies have found that young audiences are largely unable to understand when something is sponsored content.

In some cases, it's clear. When a big star like Jonathan Van Ness, of Netflix's Queer Eye, takes to Instagram to rave about toilet paper, the assumption is he's probably getting paid to do so. And Van Ness's posts are clearly labeled as ads, with the caption #advertisement or #sponsoredcontent.

But what happens when an everyday person with just a couple thousand followers takes to social media to extol the virtues of a product? The motivations are not so clear cut. "The problem with a lot of these social media posts is that you don't know whether it's an ad or not," Patten says.

She wants transparency in social media advertising. Whether it's that nutritional shake, or that tooth whitener that will make you look like a Cheshire Cat, Patten wants influencers to be clear that they are getting paid to recommend it.

Ultimately, consumer advocates say the buck stops with the Federal Trade Commission. But several watchdog groups say the agency has done little in terms of enforcement.

"There are laws that say what influencers and companies can and cannot do," Patten says. "Unfortunately, the FTC does not have the resources to police social media platforms to the extent necessary."

An FTC spokesperson referred us to the agency's guidelines, which say if people are getting paid to promote, "then a disclosure is appropriate."

Altman is diligent about using those hashtags. She loves what she does and sees it as a business, but she doesn't necessarily want to be a social media celebrity.

"With social media being so integrated into our everyday lives, we have this unique opportunity that I don't think anyone has ever had before where we can each be our own brand," Altman says.

For many, the very idea of everyday people becoming brands sounds like some nightmare capitalist dystopia.

Saleem Alhabash, who teaches public relations and social media at Michigan State University, says there are bigger implications to this. When the lines between what is real life and what is marketing get blurred, it changes people's behaviors.

"You always need to be doing something exciting," Alhabash says. "Taking pictures of your food, taking pictures of the sunset. Where it becomes so important for people to be liked and appreciated, that they have to live another person's life."

Like many people, he wonders: What are we buying into when we're all trying to sell something?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.