Few YouTube, Pinterest Influencers Disclose Affiliate Links

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PRINCETON, N.J. – New research from Princeton University finds that most influencers profiting from product reviews on YouTube and Pinterest fail to disclose their affiliated marketing relationships. 

Researchers analyzed more than 500,000 YouTube videos and more than 2.1 million Pinterest pins between August and September 2017 and, of those, 3,472 videos and 18,237 pins had affiliate links. But within that subset, just 10 percent of YouTube videos and seven percent of Pinterest pins had any written disclosure of affiliated relationships.

What’s more, the vast majority of disclosures the researchers did find didn't adhere to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines. 

Those guidelines, in place since 2013, require that affiliate links embedded within product reviews include a disclosure. In the current version of the guidelines, bloggers must include more than just the phrase “affiliate link” and instead must use a short explanatory phrase, like “I make a commission through purchases made through this link.”

Of the few disclosures the researchers found, most included phrases like "affiliate links may be present above." Disclosures that contained an actual explanation of what an affiliate link is only accounted for a small fraction of the items found. 

"​Disclosures are important so users can give – in their minds – appropriate weightage to content creators’ endorsements," says Arunesh Mathur, a Princeton graduate student and the lead author of the paper. He says the findings likely don't represent all undisclosed affiliate marketing campaigns on Pinterest and YouTube because the researchers didn't take into consideration other forms that don't include links, like coupon codes.

Last fall, the FTC sent letters to celebrities and influencers reminding them about disclosing brand relationships. Insiders say young influencers may not be aware of the FTC's guidelines or how exactly they are required to disclose partner relationships. 

Fashion blogger Austen Tosone told Wired he believes a lot of bloggers are still navigating the ins and outs of disclosures. For example, they may be unsure if there's a different way to disclose a paid promotion compared to a gifted product or service.

"I definitely think that my readers want to know whether or not something I post is sponsored,” Tosone said. “Even if it's a brand I use and love a lot, if I'm being paid to create content for them or was sent a product with the agreement that I'd review it on one of my social channels, I always still disclose that relationship."

The authors of the research say they plan to build a tool that can detect and highlight affiliate marketing campaigns automatically, so consumers can be aware immediately of any financial incentive in the review they're watching. 

"Web browsers can arguably do more in alerting users about sponsored content since many of the accompanying disclosures can be detected – where present – using machine learning and natural language processing techniques," says Mathur.