Exclusive: 1 NEWS investigation reveals how much Government is paying online influencers

By Jessica Roden and Anna Whyte

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Since 2012, almost $8 million has been paid to social media personalities to promote NZ issues and tourism. Source: 1 NEWS

Millions of dollars have been spent by Government departments and agencies to advertise with social media influencers. 

Figures obtained by 1 NEWS show 17 Government departments and agencies have used influencers since 2012, including Hollywood stars, Bollywood celebrities and YouTube sensations. 

It has cost taxpayers $8 million, with the biggest spender being Tourism NZ. It also comes with a warning to be transparent with taxpayer money. 

Influencers - people who promote products or experiences via social media - are being increasingly used as a marketing tool for businesses, and now the Government.

Tourism NZ spent more than $7 million, with a seven-day trip by US actress Bryce Dallas Howard costing $1 million. 

But the agency says it's not a free holiday in New Zealand. 

Rebecca Ingram, Tourism NZ's general manager of NZ and Government relations, said they also hosted the National Geographic crew at the same time as Howard, as well as a Tourism NZ crew filming her experience. 

"All of those things form part of the production," she said. "We made videos, we made content that went on our website, we took beautiful photos of her time here and that formed the basis of our marketing activity in the US for more than a year.

"Ultimately, what we're wanting to do is choose New Zealand for a holiday in an increasingly competitive world out there - for holiday makers, we want to make sure New Zealand's top of mind." 

Auckland University of Technology marketing lecturer Sommer Kapitan said it is now a "no-brainer to use a social media influencer as part of your outreach". 

"As we're looking at how some Government agencies have worked with social media influencers, there are clearly some question marks around if each piece of content has been clearly labelled to become an advertisement," she said. 

A picture posted by Howard was not labelled as an advertisement. 

"We don't actually pay per post but what we find is that the people we partner with are so excited that they do their own personal posts," Ms Ingram said.

Ms Ingram estimated it had an 18-to-1 return on investment for the campaign. An additional $1 million went to a campaign with director James Cameron. 

Other big spenders

The Health Promotion Agency spent $129,304 with campaigns on alcohol, strokes and depression - using influencers such as Bachelorette star Lily McManus, and Ben Boyce and Jono Pryor. 

The Transport Agency spent $114,680 since 2012, with New Zealanders such as Hannah (Laity) Barrett, Brodie Kane and former Bachelor star Zac Franich paid $2500 this year to promote cycle participation on Instagram. 

The Electoral Commission paid $230,000 prior to the 2017 General Election and the 2018 Māori Electoral Option. Influencers used included How to Dad, Jamie Curry and actress Kim Crossman. 

New Zealand Trade & Enterprise spent $39,522 - $20,000 of that to baking influencer Erin Clarkson of Cloudy Kitchen for a campaign to show New Zealand as a "premium food producer in the United States marketplace". 

Internal Affairs paid $32,000, with $29,083 to actor Julian Dennison and Youth MP brother Christian Dennison to promote the launch the  of exhibition He Tohu.

Stats New Zealand spent $43,000 on 18 Facebook posts promoting the Census, through Bachelor star Art Green, the Cougar Boys, comedian Cori Gonzales-Macuerm, Jordie Barret and Megan Annear. 

Education NZ, a government agency for international education, spent $50,615.

The Department of Conservation paid a total of $34,738, with $15,838 going to Liz Carlson - a Wanaka-based Instagram star who goes by the title Young Adventuress - for posts between December 2016 and June 2019. Topics included the Whio Awareness Month Campaign and the Paparoa Track Launch. 

Statistics New Zealand spent $46,000 and used All Black Jordie Barrett to promote the Census. 

Advertising rules:

The Advertising Standards Authority told 1 NEWS its code states ads "must be identified as such". 

"It must be clear to the audience that they are engaging with an advertisement.

"Content controlled, directly or indirectly, by the advertiser must not be disguised as something other than an advertisement. It must be obvious to, and well understood by, the audience that they are engaging with an advertisement regardless of the form the advertisement takes or the platform where it appears.

"Disclaimers and other qualifying statements must be clearly visible and easily understood."

On ensuring paid advertisements were transparent, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said he expected all agencies "to be open and transparent if they use social media influencers for advertising purposes". 

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AUT senior marketing lecturer Sommer Kapitan talked about the Government’s spending on influencers. Source: Breakfast

The future of advertising

Ms Kapitan of AUT told 1 NEWS the market place is "definitely expanding".

"There are more social influencers every time you open a social app," she said.

"We have to go where our audience is if we want to reach them, if we want to inform them, influence their eventual choice, influence their attitudes and opinions. If you're the Electoral Commission you've gotta go where we are."

However, influencers and the Government needed to ensure they are transparent, she said.

"You should be indicating that this is an #ad or #sponsored or #spon," she said. "If you include a brand or logo, you're kind of covered.

"There are clearly some question marks around if each piece of content has been clearly labelled to become an advertisement. I feel like we're just entering the saloon of the wild west and in the saloon we're trying to figure out if there's rules before we have the shoot out."