WhyItMatters

A dose of ethics for online ads

For the first time, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore is drafting specific guidelines to address the challenges created by advertising on social media.

The draft - currently at the public feedback stage - states that marketers must identify paid ads that appear on blogs and other social media platforms, and disclose any commercial relationships.

Australia and Britain have similar codes.

Currently, sellers in Singapore have free rein in cyberspace. They can set up blogs that appear to be impartial to trumpet their own products or services.

Some even hire people to give positive reviews - a practice known as "astroturfing". Bloggers and other endorsers who are paid to write about their experiences are not obliged to declare this upfront.

The lack of ethical behaviour in the digital space has led to casualties.

In March, popular blogger Xiaxue, real name Wendy Cheng, posted a leaked e-mail from social media marketing firm Gushcloud asking the bloggers it represented to complain about the services of other telcos as part of a promotion strategy for Singtel's youth mobile plan. The saga led to an apology from both Gushcloud and Singtel.

Under the new guidelines, advertising in cyberspace could be a win-win-win situation.

Endorsers would still be paid to write about their experiences; sellers - from restaurateurs to pre-school operators - would get a big audience and consumers would get access to information that they can trust.

If left unchecked, the situation could go the other way. Disillusioned consumers, turned off by the lack of accountability in the online world, could eventually shun these blogs, alienating sellers and putting endorsers out of a job.

The choice, to follow the guidelines or not, is up to them. But by not abiding by the rules, sellers and endorsers just end up hurting themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'A dose of ethics for online ads'. Print Edition | Subscribe