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Influencers Band Together With '#Sponsored' Merch to Help Destigmatize Paid Content

The entrepreneurs behind some of your favorite blogs are out to prove that "sponsored" is not a dirty word.

One of the most polarizing industry conversations these days surrounds sponsored content — particularly, the variety posted by bloggers and influencers on their social media feeds. While the FTC mandates that all paid posts must be disclosed clearly and properly using tags like "#ad" or "#sponsored," there's been some discord lately concerning the creative language influencers use to indicate their "material connection" with brands. (For instance, writing "#partner," "#sp" or simply "thank you," which are either unfamiliar or vague.) In fact, the FTC sent out letters to over 90 influencers and brands for noncompliance just last week, and as this type of marketing only becomes more popular, there's much more at stake when it comes to following the rules.

While most digitally savvy humans are aware that, yes, the legions of Instagram stars with followings in the hundreds of thousands or millions are paid to wear, tag and promote products on their feeds, there's still a stigma surrounding the concept of #SponCon. But as we've explored ad nauseam on this site, being a successful influencer is a full-time job that's no different than running a startup. Fostering relationships with brands, maintaining a professional reputation, producing high-gloss deliverables, creative directing shoots, brokering deals and negotiating collaborations are just a few of the responsibilities that fall on their shoulders — often as a one-man show, and all the while, maintaining a perfectly Instagram-ready aesthetic. So, in theory, disclosing partnerships with top-tier fashion, beauty and travel companies should be seen as a badge of honor instead of a scarlet letter, right?

Fohr Card, the marketing agency that connects creative influencers with compatible brands in their space, decided to help them "take back" the word "sponsored" with a new merch campaign, quietly sent out this week. Co-founder James Nord tells Fashionista that 120 of Fohr Card's influencers opted to participate — a group that could generate about 14 million total impressions — and while there wasn't a particular event or crackdown that inspired the campaign, it's an idea he's been brewing for a while.

"We wanted to give influencers a platform to have this conversation with their followers and say, 'Hey, I put a lot of thought into these things and this is how I make my living, and you guys are a big reason that I have this job and I am not taking brand deals that I don't think are right," Nord explains. The participants' posts thus far have mostly expressed pride and gratitude for their audiences, and the feedback is generally positive. 

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Another key point that this campaign is meant to drive home is that, despite the seemingly endless sea of sponsored content on social media, there is a rhyme and a reason behind it all. "I'm often most proud when people turn projects down," Nord says. "[An influencer] was offered $30,000 for a beauty tutorial and they said no, because the product didn't match their skin tone. It was like, 'If I do this video, my followers will go out and buy this foundation and it won't work for them.' They aren't out there hawking every product that comes their way."

With all of the recent discussion surrounding the FTC and proper disclosure, Nord asserts that strict adherence to the rules is among Fohr Card's top priorities. "Some brands don't want to have disclosure, some influencers don't; our business is so much bigger than one client, so it's never been worth it," he says. "If you want to work with us, we have to have FTC compliance. But it feels like recently there is less of a pushback from both sides." The FTC does switch up the rules regarding acceptable language now and again, so it is a confusing space and time, but top influencers are keeping themselves educated and are willing (and required) to adapt to change.  

If you spot a "#sponsored" baseball cap or two on your feeds in the coming days, try to resist the urge to roll your eyes and scroll right by. As with much of the merch out there right now, it's a tongue-in-cheek way to acknowledge paid content fatigue while pointing out that, for many, it's a way to make a living — as long as we, the followers, are still paying attention. 

"We want to give influencers who work really hard the chance to say, 'I'm so happy to have these brands that I grew up loving partnering with me now,' and essentially help to tell their stories," Nord says. "That they feel fortunate to be able to do this every day."

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