Changes in advertising regulation: New version of the Code of Ethics for advertising and commercial communication and recommendations for “Influencer Marketing”

The National Council for Self-Regulation (NCS) is a non-profit association whose main task is to unite the advertising industry – advertisers, advertising agencies and media behind the idea of ​​voluntary application and compliance with high professional standards in advertising and commercial communication through the implementation of a Code of Ethics in favor of fair competition and above all in consumer protection. The rules of the Code are aimed at self-regulation by establishing a relationship of social responsibility and business ethics between all parties in the process, in accordance with current legislation and international practice. They are mandatory for media service providers under the Radio and Television Act, which stipulates sanctions for non-compliance with a decision of the Ethics Commission. With the latest amendments to the RTA, the role of self-regulation has been strengthened.

The NCS has developed a new version of the Code of Ethics, adding four new sections – Trade Promotions, Sponsorship, Direct Marketing & Digital Commercial Communication and Environmental Statements in Commercial Communication. The rules in these new sections specify and supplement the General Rules of the Code and must be interpreted and applied together with them.

Trade Promotions

The rules apply to marketing tools and techniques that are applied to make the products offered more attractive to consumers through the use of a promotional element (cash profit, another product or profit opportunity) and apply regardless of the distribution method and the media channel, including digital (e.g. websites), audiovisual and print media. They do not affect the usual provision of bonuses or accessories to products, which are not promotional in character. The section regulates the basic principles of trade promotions, the terms and conditions of the offer, as well as the responsibility for the management and presentation of the promotion.

An important requirement is that users should be able to easily understand the terms of the promotion, including its limitations. Complexly formulated rules should be avoided. In addition, the chances of receiving a prize should not be exaggerated, the value of the promotional item should not be overstated and the price of the main product should not be hidden. Promoters must ensure sufficient availability of the promotional items in order to meet the expected demand in accordance with the presented conditions of the promotion. When it comes to promotional claims in support of charitable causes, consumers need to be informed what part of the price will be set aside for the cause before purchasing the promotional product. The section also contains information requirements regarding the offer provided to consumers when the trade promotion guarantees prizes or in the case of competitions in which the skills of the participants are evaluated.


The rules apply to all forms of sponsorship for corporate image, brands, products, activities or events of any kind (sponsorships from commercial and non-profit organizations, as well as sponsorship elements which are part of other marketing activities such as trade promotions or direct marketing). They do not apply to product positioning or financing that is not for commercial or communication purposes such as donation or patronage. The section includes a requirement for clear indication of the sponsorship, as well as a ban on the appropriation of sponsorship rights (so-called ambush marketing). It is envisaged that the ultimate responsibility for compliance with the ethical standards of advertising communication will be shared jointly between the sponsor and the sponsored party according to the activities for which they are responsible, regardless of the type or content of the sponsorship. Attention is paid to the sponsor-sponsored party relationship and the obligation of the sponsored party to protect the sponsor’s reputation, and of the sponsor – to take special care to preserve the cultural, artistic, sports part of the sponsored content and not to abuse their status as a sponsor, threatening the identity, dignity and reputation of the sponsored party. Particular attention is paid to artistic and historical sites, social and environmental sponsorship and charity and humanitarian sponsorship.

Direct Marketing and Digital Commercial Communication

The rules are addressed to all participants in the process of direct marketing and in the entire ecosystem of digital commercial communication and apply to all their commercial communications, digital or not, regardless of their form, content and distribution channels. The commercial nature of the content of a social network profile, over which the marketing operators exercise control or influence, must be clearly indicated. The rules also include a requirement for identification of marketing operators, transparency of the terms of each offer made, prior consumer awareness regarding the steps when placing an order, a ban on the use of pressure tactics on consumers, as well as respect for the customer’s opinion when they do not wish to receive direct commercial communication by being offered a preference selection system. Given the global access to electronic networks, an obligation to take into account sensitive topics for the global audience, i.e. outside the specific geographic market, is envisaged. The section also contains rules regarding telemarketing and advertising based on the analysis of internet consumer behavior (online behavioral advertising). Telemarketing calls should only be made at the appropriate time, recorded only after a warning, and automatic calls are only allowed after an initial conversation with an operator or with the user’s consent. Online behavioral advertising should be carried out in strict compliance with the requirements for consumer awareness and the possibility of control by the users. A definition of location data is given, and it is envisaged that such data collection occurs when it is not limited to city/town address or postal code, but is aimed at the establishing the actual physical location via GPS or other applicable methods.

Environmental Statements in Commercial Communication

The section applies to all commercial communications containing environmental claims with regards to the production, packaging, distribution, use/consumption or destruction of products. Some of the rules introduce the requrements of the ISO 14021 standard. Marketing operators should not make exaggerated environmental claims – to present a small improvement as a great benefit or use statistics in a misleading way, such as “we doubled the recycled content of our product” when the percentage was very small in the first place. Claims such as “environmentally friendly”“environmentally safe”“green”“sustainable”“low carbon” or others, suggesting that a product or activity has either none or only positive impact on the environment, should not be presented unless there is substantial evidence thereof. Superiority over competitors in terms of environmental impact should only be claimed when a significant advantage can be demonstrated, making it clear whether the claimed advantage is absolute or relative in character. Claims stating that a product, packaging or component does not contain a specific substance should be supported by relevant reliable scientific evidence. Eco-labels or symbols must be used to indicate the source and fulfill this purpose in such a way as not to mislead consumers that there is official approval or certification by third parties when this is not the case. An existing but undisclosed aspect should not be communicated as new. Particular attention is also paid with regards to communication, in relation to the waste of a certain product and the recycling opportunities.

Recommendations for marketing through influential individuals (so-called influencers)

In response to the rapid technological development and the recently emerging new forms of commercial communication on social networks, which are especially important for adolescents, the National Council for Self-Regulation has also developed special Recommendations for marketing through influential individuals (so-called influencers).

What is marketing through the so-called influencers and why is its regulation necessary?

Influencers are influential individuals, bloggers, vloggers, etc., who shape the opinion of the audience through blogs, vlogs, posts and messages on various sites and social media (Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). When advertisers identify such people, often they assign them the promotion of brands and/or products in front of their audience, and then the content they share becomes commercial communication, which as such must be clearly recognizable.

The growth of this type of commercial communication worldwide and in Bulgaria necessitates the introduction of measures to ensure responsible marketing and effective protection of the users and the society, as well as the clear distinction between objective, unprovoked for commercial reasons personal opinion of these influential people and the content, generated with marketing intentions.

This practice has already been adopted in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the US Federal Trade Commission and the UK Competition and Markets Authority have issued guidelines urging influencers to indicate their relationship with brands more clearly.

Which content published by influential people is considered commercial communication and what requirements should it meet?

According to the recommendations introduced, any content created by an influential individual which promotes a certain brand and/or product/service is considered commercial communication if the advertiser exercises control over the content (request for a positive opinion, inclusion of a certain number of mentions or the publication of a photo in a post on social networks, text prepared in advance by the advertiser, etc.) and a payment or another obligation on the side of the advertiser is present (provision of free goods/services or the offering of such under reduced prices, etc.).

The recommendations stipulate that commercial messages through influential individuals should be created and presented in such a way that the audience immediately distinguishes them as advertisements through various forms of labeling, which should accompany the relevant content anywhere and anytime it is being published. Branded content can be marked through the settings in the social platform (Branded Content). For example, on the social media platform Instagram, there is an option to indicate under each post “in partnership with/in paid partnership with” and the respective advertiser. To indicate the commercial nature of the content, the sign “#” (hashtag) is also used, indicating the name of the brand/advertiser and in addition words describing the nature of the agreement, for example #advertising/ad, #sponsored.

Although the General Rules of the Code of Ethics stipulate that the responsibility for the ethics of advertising lies with the advertiser, it is important that all participants in digital marketing (vloggers, bloggers and other “influencers”) provide responsible marketing and carry responsibility for compliance with the ethical rules in the advertising industry, of which they have become a part.

Amendments to the Radio and Television Act related to commercial communications

The new amendments to the Radio and Television Act, adopted on  December 17, 2020, are aimed at implementing the provisions of Directive 2018/1808 amending the Audiovisual Media Services Directive. The purpose of the new moments is to strengthen the measures for the protection of children against harmful content in the online space, in video on demand and from inappropriate audiovisual commercial messages, but also to regulate the services of video sharing platforms. The new Act covers not only video sharing platforms, but also video on demand, as well as audiovisual commercial communications on websites. Thus, the legal provisions under which the Council for Electronic Media controls the electronic environment will also apply to video content websites. Therefore, they will now have to comply with the same rules regarding the content of advertisements as media service providers.

The amendments to the Act also expand the scope of the ban on cigarette advertising, as the ban now includes electronic cigarettes and refill containers. In addition, the new texts promote self-regulation and co-regulation through codes of conduct and standards.

Providers of video sharing platforms and media service providers are obliged to comply with the ethical rules for advertising and commercial communication, developed by the National Council for Self-Regulation, and in case of violation the Council for Electronic Media will be able to impose financial fines. A provider of a video sharing platform who fails to comply with a decision of the Ethics Commission of the NCS in time is subject to the imposition of a property sanction in the amount of BGN 2,000 to 5,000.


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