Own goal: Sony tweets by Rio Ferdinand banned for breaches of ad labelling codes

Tweets by the former England star referencing “Playstation House” social event received complaints for not being clearly identified as ads for Sony.

Sony is the latest brand to come under fire for social media posts not being labelled as ads, after two Twitter posts from former England footballer Rio Ferdinand have come under the UK ad watchdog’s radar.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned the posts after ruling in favour of a complaint that they were not obviously identifiable as marketing communications.

The first of the two May 2022 tweets from Ferdinand included a video of the star discussing the Champions League Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid this year. Text in the tweet stated “Here’s who I think will be taking home the [trophy emoji] … Class day down at #PlayStationHouse ahead of the #UCLFinalv … @PlayStation #PlayStationPartner”.

The second featured images of Ferdinand in various activities at the “Playstation House” social event with the text “Some day [fire emoji] #PlayStationHouse”.

Wrong hashtag – but still identifiable

Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe told the ASA it had a compliance programme in place that included social media guidelines – with “#ad” the only form of disclosure recommended.

All influencers for the brand – including Ferdinand – were supplied the guidelines which were incorporated into contracts. But a separate guidance document approved by Sony and supplied to Ferdinand incorrectly included the option #PlayStationPartners” as a means of disclosure that the post was an ad.

The brand confirmed that Ferdinand had been contracted to provide services including the first tweet, but the second was a reply to the first and was therefore an organic response in an ongoing thread.

Sony highlighted the video in the first tweet as being filmed in a Playstation-branded studio, and that Ferdinand being interviewed in the video meant it was obvious the content was not independently created. The fact the second tweet was threaded under the first meant that consumers would understand it to be an ad.

A belief that “#ad not always necessary”

It was Sony’s belief, it said, that the presentation, tone and style of the first tweet was suitably different from Ferdinand’s usual posts to differentiate it as a marketing communication. It added that while it accepted that “#PlayStationPartner” was not the recommended disclosure, the term “Partner” suggested a commercial relationship reinforced by “the heavy presence of PlayStation branding and the tone and presentation of the ads.

The brand also asserted that it believed a disclosure such as “#ad” was not always necessary.

Ferdinand’s representatives told the ASA that Sony’s media agency had advised them to use the tag “#PlayStationPartner” when posting, which they thought would be sufficient to meet the requirements of the CAP Code. They also said they thought the second tweet was a comment on a post, not a standalone post, and so didn’t require a hashtag, adding that they would be willing to remove the posts if required.

“Not sufficient”

The ASA said while the second tweet was not part of the contractual arrangement between Sony and Ferdinand, the fact that it had used “#PlayStationHouse”, and was included in the Twitter thread started by the first tweet, meant both fell within the remit of the CAP code.

It added that it understood that Ferdinand’s “use of the tag “#PlayStationPartners” was intended to refer to his commercial relationship with Sony, and that the tag had been erroneously suggested to him by Sony in their guidance document.

“We also acknowledged Sony’s assertion that the branding and set dressing of the ads meant that followers of Ferdinand’s Twitter account were likely to understand that the posts were marketing communications.”

But the watchdog ruled that the language used were not sufficiently clear to ensure the posts were obviously ads, and that the two hashtags used did not amount to a clear acknowledgement of the commercial relationship.

It asserted that despite the posts featuring prominent logos and set dressing, these were “only relevant to the existing and well-known relationship between Sony and UEFA, and did not make clear the commercial relationship between Sony and Ferdinand, which we did not believe the average consumer would be aware of”.

The ASA told Ferdinand and Sony to ensure that future ads were upfront about commercial intent, with clear and prominent identifiers such as “#ad”.