There is no standard for distinguishing between normal tweets, facebook and blog posts and those that are sponsored or bought. The Dutch Advertising Code Authority is trying to change that.
The first time I received an e-mail from Media Discovery, I discarded it, because it resembled a spam message. But a week later I received another e-mail, which suggested an actual person was behind it: Media Discovery offers a "very attractive system of advertising."
Although I felt there would be too many ethical problems with advertising on my journalistic website, the e-mail caught my attention. Media Discovery wanted me to write an article or blog post of about 300 words that was "in some way relevant" to their client - the advertiser. An example of how such an ad would look was included - it linked to a blog post on a website called My Car Reviews. The blog post had one link, but there was no indication that it was an ad. "As you can see, it looks just like a regular article or blog post," the e-mail said.
I replied to ask how many other bloggers had cooperated and whether they were allowed to tell their readers that a link was an advertisement. The response came four hours later.
"Dear Peter, my apologies for taking a while to get back to you. Unfortunately, the campaign we initially had in mind for your site has already reached their target sooner than expected."
It was a clear rejection - I must have been asking too many questions because Media Discovery was still hoping for "a new and exciting partnership," until I sent that email asking about how many other bloggers had participated.
'Consumers now have a voice'
My experience isn't that surprising - at least not for Matthijs Roumen, a communications strategy director in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Even though I, like most Internet users, don't know of such advertising companies, Roumen has heard of them.
"Consumers now have a voice because of social media. Anyone can tweet or write or blog or Facebook about things they see in their lives," he says. "That's something that advertisers see as an opportunity to spread a message about their brand or about their products."
But it's not always clear whether a tweet is in fact paid for or not. If a consumer sees a message and only later finds out that it was an advertisement, this can severely damage the consumer's trust in the brand.
"What we see in the field is that people eventually dislike the people that are spreading the message and the brand itself, because they are unaware of the relationship between the advertiser and the one that's speaking about the product," Roumen says. "When I know that you are writing in favor of a brand by being paid for it, it's a whole different kind of thing than when you're writing about it from an honest opinion."
Making advertising transparent
That's why it is important that someone who gets paid to promote a product in a blog post or tweet should disclose that, says Roumen.
Roumen was involved in preparing an ethical code for the Dutch trade organization for direct marketing and sales promotion. This Social Media Marketing code applies to all 270 companies that are members of the Dutch Dialogue Marketing Association.
The code recommends disclosure by adding a hashtag and the letters SPON, for sponsored, or AD, for advertisement, on Twitter. Dutch entrepeneur Dirk Zeelenberg recently found himself in a controversy when he argued adding a hashtag would not be necessary. He had asked Dutch celebrities to promote a film on Twitter, urging that they make the message sound as non-commercial as possible.
But now Mr Zeelenberg appears to have reformed. His company, Spread the Brand, will suggest to its users they use a hashtag like "ad," says the company's co-founder, Ton van 't Noordende.
"We basically provide the possibility for influentials to make money by sending out a tweet for a specific company. What we say is: we let the influentials determine which kind of message they want to send, so it's basically up to them, in consideration with of course the briefing by the brand. What we basically do is, we add a short code, hashtag AD, but in the future it might be hashtag ADV [for 'advertisement']," he says.
Ethics on the Net
The big question of course is, what happens when users of Spread the Brand - the so-called influentials - delete this hashtag. Who will then be responsible? The influentials, the advertiser or Spread the Brand?
This is uncharted territory. Since the Netherlands has one of the most active Twitter communities in Europe, it is one of the countries where this kind of problems has come up first. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency Authority has told Nike to ban tweets by football player Wayne Rooney, in which it had not been clear that they were part of Nike's campaign. Most countries have self-regulatory bodies like the ASAA, but there is no pan-European code of ethics on the matter.
In the Netherlands the ethical code will probably be adopted later this year by the Dutch Advertising Code Authority, which has been responsible for self-regulation of the advertising business in The Netherlands since the sixties. That will give a lot more weight to the code, and will give power to potential consumers who feel misled.
However, that probably won't help me find out more about this shady company, Media Discovery. They never again replied to my e-mails. A request to the general e-mail address given on Media Discovery's website went unanswered. So have several phone calls to the UK number advertised.