- Velocity Black, the so-called “Uber for experiences,” has asked British and American celebrities to plug its app on Instagram in exchange for a free membership worth £2,000 ($US2,600)-a-year.
- Such arrangements could potentially be viewed as payment-in-kind by the UK’s advertising watchdog, meaning the celebrity is potentially liable to declare their post as an advert.
- Of the 12 celebrity Instagram posts analysed by Business Insider, only one made clear that it was an advert for Velocity Black’s services.
- Reality TV star Millie Mackintosh and Jennifer Lopez are among those who have fallen foul of sponsored social media post rules in the UK and US in recent years.
Digital concierge company Velocity Black last year closed a $US22.5 million (£17.3 million) funding round, which resulted in it being dubbed the “Uber for experiences.”
Based in London, New York, Miami, and LA, the app positions itself as a “unique lifestyle enhancer for the digital age.” It gives users access to remarkable events in return for a £2,000 annual membership fee and a joining fee of £400, with the cost of each experience on top.
Some of the experiences it connects members with are pretty wild. They include swimming with blue whales in Sri Lanka, “flying a jet to the edge of space,” a trip to the wreckage of the Titanic, or simply booking top restaurants, according to the company.
“Celebrities have been selected and invited to become founding members,” a company spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider. “To get the membership, they have to post on social media.”
But Velocity Black is operating in an increasingly problematic area of UK advertising rules by offering some of the world’s biggest Instagram stars a free membership in return for an obviously branded post.
Below are 12 examples of both British and American celebrities plugging Velocity Black on Instagram.
All of these posts, bar one, were uploaded amid a blaze of publicity over the past month. They include messaging that is strikingly similar to Velocity’s official communications, but only one is explicit about being an advert.
For example, Victoria Secret model Martha Hunt’s post reads: “From encouraging me to swim with orca whales (which was awesome), to helping me book my favourite Mexican restaurant last-minute in NYC, @velocity.black continues to amaze me.”
Now here’s a Velocity Black press release, sent to Business Insider on June 30: “Book commercial or private travel — wherever on Earth you want to go. From swimming with Orca whales in Norway to a business trip in New York.”
There are other examples. Victoria Secret model Chanel Imam said Velocity is always on hand to “help me with even the hardest of requests.” Meanwhile, a second press release, issued by the company on June 8, said its network of experts make recommendations “tailored to its members and fulfil even the most difficult requests.”
Of the Instagram posts analysed by Business Insider, only model Elska Hosk — another VS angel — made it clear that her message was an advertisement.
She posted this with “#ad” at the end of her plug: “@velocity.black From curating the most extraordinary experiences, planning my non stop travel and securing my restaurant reservations — Velocity Black does it all seamlessly and puts it at the palm of my hand.”
A Velocity Black spokesperson said the celebrities who did make it clear their posts were an “ad” were advertising the experiences, rather than the membership offered by the service.
“The ads are for the experiences themselves, other members are just announcing their memberships,” the company said. However, it confirmed the memberships had been given to the stars for free.
In the posts above, each celebrity demonstrates a love of Velocity Black and excitement over its launch. However, the users were each incentivised to love the brand in the form of a free membership, putting the authenticity of their enthusiasm in question.
UK ad watchdog encourages people to raise concerns
Business Insider contacted the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ask about the issue.
Spokesman Matt Wilson said a social media post becomes an advert when it is “paid for and controlled by the brand and advertiser.” Payment doesn’t have to mean money. “It can mean reciprocal arrangement — you can argue free membership is a payment in kind,” he added.
If this is the case and the messaging is being controlled by the brand, the social media post “has to be clearly signposted as an ad,” Wilson said. While there is no financial penalty for not abiding by this rule, posts that don’t follow protocol can be banned.
He explained: “Under consumer protection law, we have a two-stage test for it to become an ad. In terms of disclosure, even if there’s no payment and no control, under consumer protection law you’re still meant to disclose if you’ve been paid to say something.”
Wilson encouraged social media users to come forward if they have concerns. “This is a bit of a test case,” he said. “We’d need to look into it. If people have concerns, we encourage them to get in touch.”
Past warnings over sponsored posts
In 2015, former “Made In Chelsea” star Millie Mackintosh came under fire for posting an Instagram video that was not obviously identifiable as an ad for J2O, the Britvic soft drinks brand.
According to Campaign Live, the hashtag #sp, which means “sponsored post,” was used, but the Advertising Standards Authority said this was “not a label that consumers would understand.” The post was subsequently banned, although Business Insider found the video above live on Instagram.
Others have also fallen foul of the rules. Earlier this year, ASA upheld a complaint against beauty blogger Sheikbeauty for failing to clearly identify an Instagram post as an ad.
In 2016, ASA warned bloggers promoting brands on Instagram to be clearer about when they are posting advertising. “If your content is an ad, it should be obviously identifiable to consumers,” the guidance read, adding that a hashtag such as #ad should be used.
These problems are not just confined to the UK. In April, celebrities in the US including Jennifer Lopez, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Naomi Campbell were among those who received warning letters from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in April over sponsored Instagram posts.
The warnings marked the first time the FTC had reached out directly to social media influencers in an effort to clarify the type of language used to state if a post is sponsored (like #ad). It also suggested that Instagram posts should make clear early on if they are an advert.
“Consumers viewing Instagram posts on mobile devices typically see only the first three lines of a longer post unless they click ‘more,’ which many may not do,” the FTC said.