There is a fair amount of panic these days about FTC guidelines, mostly driven by a handful of celebrities (like the Kardashians) who neglected to disclose the fact that they received financial compensation in exchange for social shares.
The FTC has even cracked down on major brands like Lord & Taylor for flagrantly defying the rules. To remind you, last year, the retailer paid 50 fashion influencers several thousand dollars each to post a picture, all wearing a flouncy paisley dress. It might have seemed random – but it wasn’t. They were compensated to post the picture, and as such, they should have let their followers know that this post was inspired by the love of money, rather than the love of paisley dresses.
Flouting of the rules gets negative media attention, including a recent front-page story in the New York Times, and causes major heartburn for legal teams at big brands – leaving them fretting over whether their influencer campaigns are compliant. So, how do you know if your influencer marketing team is following FTC Guidelines? Well, it helps if you understand both the ambiguities of said guidelines AND the explicit rules.
The philosophy behind the FTC guidelines is fairly straightforward. Any influencer who receives a product or compensation in exchange for a social share or blog post must disclose to their readers in a way that is clear, conspicuous, and unambiguous. Some marketers seem confused because there are no hard and fast rules. Mary K. Engle, the FTC’s associate director for advertising practices, explained to the New York Times, “We’re not prescriptive … but it has to be unambiguous.”
I understand the angst this causes rule-followers who want to have a hard and fast decree, so I’ll share a few more clues straight from the mouth of Mary Engle of the FTC, like this one: “The disclosure has to be placed in such a way that the consumer is not going to miss it.”
Imagine the average reader scrolling through his or her Facebook newsfeed. What will stop them dead in their tracks and clearly and unambiguously alert them that this post is sponsored by a brand? The word “ad” seems pretty obvious to me. Put a hashtag in front of it, and you’ve officially joined the ranks of paid influencers.
Some social media stars try to get fancy and use all sorts of catchphrases and clues as a workaround to the guidelines. Favorites include #spon, #collab, and #Co. Spon sounds like something a fish does, and collab makes me think you’re just super collaborative. Co? What does that mean? You’re starting a company?
Mary Engle seems to agree, “We’re seeing disclosures that are ambiguous, given the context of the culture of these platforms,” she said in PRWeek, “…#Ad and #sponsored is fine, but not #Spon and #Sp or #Collab or #co.” So, there you have it, straight out of the mouth of the FTC, #Spon, #Sp, #Collab, and #Co don’t make the grade.
Any agency or brand running influencer campaigns needs to be well versed in the guidelines. If they find them to be ambiguous, I suggest heading over to the nonprofit, Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). WOMMA has been a devoted resource and the ethical guide to our industry since 2004. Here’s a link to their social media disclosure guidelines.
While the FTC may not provide a play-by-play for every scenario, it’s not that hard to stop and ask, “Is it clear? Is it unambiguous, and is the disclosure placed in such a way that the consumer is not going to miss it?”
Finally, when in doubt, always remember that #ad is ironclad!