The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (Asas) is looking to plug gaps in the best practice codes for advertising in the online world, including on social media and blog sites.
The authority yesterday announced that it was seeking public feedback on the newly drafted Digital and Social Media Advertising Guidelines that it started working on about two years ago.
The guidelines, which were drawn up after what Asas called "an extensive study", require paid advertisements that appear on blogs and other social media platforms to be identified as such, and any commercial relationships to be disclosed.
Ads on blogs and Twitter, for instance, cannot be masked as personal opinion, editorial content or a casual post. Any relationship between the advertiser and endorser that could affect the credibility of an endorsement must also be disclosed.
BETTER REGULATION NEEDED
There is a gap in regulations, and social media advertising is proliferating. When there is no best practice, the result is that marketers may avoid social media advertising altogether.
DR ANG PENG HWA, Asas' legal adviser
Marketers or advertisers will no longer be able to set up blogs that appear to come from an impartial source, but have, in fact, been created by them to push a product or service; and they cannot pass themselves off as consumers when expressing an opinion about their own product or service.
Advertisers sometimes pressure bloggers and agencies to pass off a paid ad as personal opinion. Now, we can tell them that asking us to do this goes against advertising guidelines here.
MR CHEO MING SHEN, Nuffnang's chief executive
It also requires that ads directed at children be appropriate; and that websites selling products subject to age restrictions, such as alcohol and gambling services, undertake measures to restrict minors' access.
Once the guidelines are finalised - a process that will take about six months from the end of the consultation period - they will be incorporated into the current Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, which was last updated in 2008.
Dr Ang Peng Hwa, Asas' legal adviser, said: "There is a gap in regulations, and social media advertising is proliferating. When there is no best practice, the result is that marketers may avoid social media advertising altogether."
It is common for bloggers to be sponsored for a meal or hotel stay, and later write about their experience. But not all bloggers currently declare upfront that their experience was sponsored, or that they were paid for the review.
Some firms even hire people to create fake online profiles to support a certain cause, or give positive reviews - known as "astroturfing".
In March, a storm ensued when popular blogger Xiaxue, whose real name is Wendy Cheng, posted a leaked e-mail from 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 the social media marketing firm and the telco.
Asas, whose members include government agencies such as the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, and media owners like Singapore Press Holdings, evaluates ads on a case-by-case basis and can ask media owners to withhold ad space.
Nuffnang chief executive Cheo Ming Shen said that the new guidelines were "a long time coming", and that the blogger management agency has been telling its bloggers to list paid ads or sponsored posts as such for several years.
"Advertisers sometimes pressure bloggers and agencies to pass off a paid ad as personal opinion. Now, we can tell them that asking us to do this goes against advertising guidelines here," said Mr Cheo.
Mr Daniel Ang, 37, of DanielFoodDiary, said he declares paid advertorials as such, but does not think it necessary to list relationships with restaurant owners, in cases where, say, a restaurant owner is a friend.
"I think there is no need to do that. Readers should trust us to be objective," he said, adding that he does not think the new guidelines will change much.
"Even if I am paid to review a restaurant, I will still be objective about it."
•The period of consultation is from now to Jan 8 next year. Interested parties can submit written comments on the guidelines to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 5pm on Jan 8.