Ad or Not? Olivia Munn, Booking.com, and People Magazine

June 30th, 2017

Summer is here and travel season is in full swing, meaning long drives on packed highways to beaches nearly as crowded as those interstates. Luckily, celebrities have found the solution to these pesky travelers’ woes: simply jet to private villas. People Magazine makes it easy for mere mortals to ogle over these extravagant outings via its “Home & Travel” section, which documents everything from celebs’ interior-decorating preferences, to real estate purchases, to tropical vacations.

But a recent article featuring actress Olivia Munn’s current getaway to Turks and Caicos has raised some suspicions about whether the post is editorial content from the magazine or an advertisement from the travel site Munn used to book the vacay.

This morning at 8 a.m. EST, Munn posted the following picture to her Instagram account and wrote in the caption: “Thank you @bookingcom for the amazing villa!!”

The post itself has some influencer-marketing red flags. The intentional tagging of the company and the use of the specific hashtag #bookingyeah makes us think she had some directions from the company in how to craft this sponsored post. When receiving free goods and services, celebrities have been known to replace what should be an FTC-mandated clear and conspicuous disclosure (such as #ad) with a more ambiguous “thank you,” presumably at the request of the company that wants the endorsement to maintain an air of authenticity.

Our curiosity was further heightened when at 8:19 a.m. EST, 19 minutes after Munn’s Instagram post, People published the article, “Olivia Munn Looks Flawless Celebrating Her Birthday (and America’s!) in Turks and Caicos.”

The timing of publication, which would have left People journalists scrambling to gather all the details and write the piece in under 20 minutes, makes us wonder if perhaps the magazine had a heads-up, or, more accurately, a financially-backed elbow nudge, from Booking.com.

This isn’t the first time People has jumped on a Booking.com story. In April, actress Janelle Monáe posted this photo below on Instagram, thanking Booking.com for her stay in Punta Cana:

And again, People Magazine was quick to write a story about her stay — “Inside Janelle Monae’s $20,000-Per-Week Vacation Villa in Punta Cana.” The story focused much of its attention on the specific amenities of the villa, such as the number of guests that could be accommodated (14), the availability of an on-site chef and butler, and an L-shaped swimming pool with a Jacuzzi. Inclusion of such detail allows tabloid readers a chance to live vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous while also giving the marketers at Booking.com a leg-up up in promoting their properties to those who can actually afford such a getaway.

Now returning to beautiful Turks and Caicos, the People story links not once but twice to Booking.com (a subsidiary of the travel behemoth, Priceline Group) in the following paragraph:

Her oceanfront home away from home is known as the Beach Enclave North Shore Villa and ordinarily goes for $20,000 for a similar stay. (Munn’s five-night b-day stay is courtesy of booking.com.) The 7,500-square-foot home offers four bedrooms, an infinity pool and plenty of privacy.

(Note how the paragraph confirms her stay was provided by Booking.com.)

Similarly to the Janelle Monáe example, the Olivia Munn article details tantalizing specifics about the lodging, such as the short walk to the beach and golf course, and an infinity pool on the property itself.

Despite the suspicious timing of the publication, the piece gives no indication of collaboration between the magazine and Booking.com (besides the crediting of Booking.com for several of the photographs used the article). Nor do the pieces give any indication of whether they were sponsored by the resorts the celebs stayed at, which are also named in the magazine articles.

Last year, People Magazine was called out by NAD for its lack of disclosure of a partnership between the celebrity magazine and Joyus, an e-commerce platform that promotes and sells its products through shopping videos it creates on People’s “Stuff We Love” page.

Read more about that flap here.

TINA.org reached out to People and Booking.com. Check back for updates.

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The National Advertising Division, or NAD, is an investigative unit of the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation. It is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. NAD asks advertisers to substantiate or change their claims in advertisements. As part of a voluntary system of self-regulation, however, its recommendations can be ignored by the offending advertisers. In those instances, NAD refers the offender to federal consumer protection agencies.

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