Instagram advertising: Are you aware of it?

In the photograph, Gretchen Altman is smiling, leaning back casually, a cup of coffee in hand — Hills Bros. Coffee, to be precise. It looks sort of a candid shot, however if you hit like, leave a comment, and tag a friend, you can get 3 totally different blends of brew, for free.

You’ve heard of influencers — social media celebrities with large followings, who get paid to affect client tastes. Kim Kardashian, maybe the most recognizable name in influencing, has over 140 million Instagram followers and reportedly gets paid up to $1 million per post.

But Lucy is an element of a growing trend of “micro-influencers.” She has a little following — around 6,000 on Instagram. Her going rate is $300 to $800 to market something, which makes her far more affordable than a Kardashian.

And Lucy does some posts in exchange for free merchandise, she says, as long as it is stuff she believes in. All this hasn’t stopped her from working with major firms like Verizon or Walgreens.

Lucy says that as a micro-influencer she has a rather more intimate relationship with her followers than an enormous social media star.

“I’m simply living a normal life and other people relate to that,” she says. “They simply feel like I’m a friend of theirs.”

And it works, says Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth In Advertising, a non-profit-making that focuses on protecting consumers from deceptive ads and marketing.

“Consumers are terribly apt to buy things that they see being promoted on social media — particularly by people they feel they have some authentic natural connection with,” she says.

‘This is a Business Now’

But this intimate relationship worries Patten and consumer rights groups. Many recent studies have found that young audiences are mostly unable to understand when something is sponsored content.

In some cases, it’s clear. When an enormous star like Jonathan Van ness, of Netflix’s Queer Eye, takes to Instagram to rave about toilet paper, the idea is he’s most likely getting paid to do so. And Van Ness’s posts are clearly labeled as ads, with the caption #advertisement or #sponsoredcontent.

But what happens when an everyday person with just a handful thousand followers takes to social media to extol the virtues of a product? The motivations don’t seem to be so clear cut. “The problem with plenty of these social media posts is that you simply don’t know whether it’s an ad or not,” Patten says.

She wants transparency in social media advertising. Whether it’s that nutritional shake, or those tooth whiteners that may make you look like a Cheshire cat, Patten wants influencers to be clear that they’re getting paid to recommend it.