By Nikita Geldenhuys

In South Africa, hoax adverts often take the form of job announcements. In May 2016, Zach Modise, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, warned the public in an announcement that fraudulent job adverts about positions open at the Department of Correctional Services were circulating on social media.

In January 2017, the health care group Netcare had to issue a similar warning that the group’s name and the name Netcare 911 were fraudulently being used in scam adverts. Peter Warrener, group human resources director, said in a press release that advertisements were being used by fraudsters with the aim of soliciting money from the public.

According to Jacqui Mackway-Wilson, digital marketing consultant at Go Social SA, motives for creating hoax adverts are usually for financial gain. This aim is sometimes direct as was the case with the Netcare incident. “[It can also be] indirect, using a fake ad as click-bait, for instance, to generate traffic to a site that derives most of its income from advertising revenue,” she says.

People who create fraudulent adverts also do so because they seek attention, Mackway-Wilson adds. “We’ve seen it happen with Nando’s from time to time. A perpetrator attempts to replicate their style of branding and advertising to deliver satirical commentary on a topical event.”

In extreme cases, fake adverts can take the form of cruel jokes and insensitive statements. A fraudulent advert circulated on social media in 2016 was falsely branded as content from the organisation, Gun Free South Africa. It suggested that women should not use firearms to defend themselves when they are raped.

What does the law say about fake adverts?

According to Fred Makgato, head of legal and regulatory affairs at the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA), there is currently no specific law promulgated to regulate social media.

“All interactions in social media are provided for in the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) and the ASA’s Code of Advertising Practice,” he says. “The code provides that it applies ‘to published adverts wherever it may appear’. The CPA, on the other hand, refers to ‘any medium’. We do not have provisions for fake ads; however, provisions for misleading advertising and substantiation provisions [exist].”

Emma Smith, a candidate attorney at Michalsons, highlights that two sections of the CPA regulate fake adverts:

1. Section 29 on General standards for marketing of goods or services

A producer, importer, distributor, retailer or service provider must not market any goods or services—
(a) in a manner that is reasonably likely to imply a false or misleading representation concerning those goods or services, as contemplated in section 41; or
(b) in a manner that is misleading, fraudulent or deceptive in any way, including in respect of—
        (i) the nature, properties, advantages or uses of the goods or services;

… Read the full section on page 70 of this document.

2. Section 40 on Unconscionable conduct

(1) A supplier or an agent of the supplier must not use physical force against a consumer, coercion, undue influence, pressure, duress or harassment, unfair tactics or any other similar conduct, in connection with any—
        (a) marketing of any goods or services;
(2) In addition to any conduct contemplated in subsection (1), it is unconscionable for a supplier knowingly to take advantage of the fact that a consumer was substantially unable to protect the consumer’s own interests because of physical or mental disability, illiteracy, ignorance, inability to understand the language of an agreement, or any other similar factor.

… Read the full section on page 84 here.

She notes businesses can take legal action for passing-off or defamation. Passing-off is when a trader uses the distinctive marks, such as the trade name or trademark of another company, to create the impression that their services are similar to the competitor’s service. “Basically, it deceives customers into accepting this performance and is done in an unfair and unlawful manner,” Smith explains.

Fake adverts are bad for businesses and their customers

Social media has become the perfect distribution platform for fake content, from false announcements to misleading news articles. Users often share the content they find in their Facebook or Twitter feeds without verifying that the content is authentic.

“Fake advertisements can do damage by negatively influencing public perception of a brand or organisation,” explains Mackway-Wilson. “Fans or customers of the brand may choose to boycott them or switch to another brand altogether, negatively affecting their revenue.”

Netcare cautioned the public about the scam job announcement to avoid damage to its brand perception, as Warrener explains, “As trust and respect for individuals are core Netcare values, these kinds of scams are against everything we stand for as a responsible corporate citizen. The fact that the Netcare brand is being used as a conduit for fraudulent activity can cause damage to people’s perception of our company.”

The public also suffer due to these fake adverts. In Netcare’s case, people who are desperate to find employment and earn money lose the payment they made for their ‘application’.

“A common effect for users is when fake job advertisements are made and users apply fruitlessly for these,” says Mackway-Wilson. “This can be a costly mistake to make for job-seekers who are already under extreme financial pressure.”

How brands can take action

Usually, brands can’t stop a false advert or announcement from being posted on social media. They can, however, take steps to slow the distribution of the content.

“You can request that the internet service provider remove the offending content by getting the Internet Service Providers Association to issue a take-down notice, provided you meet their requirements,” says Smith. “Or, if you can identify the person, you can pursue various legal avenues, including reporting the adverts to the ASA, National Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman or legal action for passing-off or defamation.”

Mackway-Wilson recommends that brands immediately issue a release that distances the brand from the hoax advert. “Consult with legal representation as to a course of action to follow. This may be unnecessary though, as it may be as simple as requesting that the advertisement be removed.”

Many social media users are still not aware that some of the content appearing on social networks are false. If more brands, organisations, digital news publishers, and even the social media companies themselves educate the public about the problem, these articles and adverts will stop spreading as quickly as they do.

Considering the intense impact that social media can have on our purchasing behaviour and decision-making, curbing the spread of misleading content should be everyone’s responsibility.

Want to know how to spot fake content? Read our article on Fact from fiction: Recognising fake news