What You Need to Know About the FTC’s New Social Media Ethics Q&A

The group tries to clarify its policy on social media endorsements.

A few months ago, our parent publication Adweek asked whether a campaign in which Lord & Taylor paid 50 fashion influencers to wear the same dress on the same day (without disclosing that they’d been paid to do so) “thumb[ed] its nose at FTC disclosure rules.”

According to a newly updated Q&A on the matter released by the Federal Trade Commission, the answer is “probably.”

Some basic takeaways:

  • The purchase/sale of fake “likes” or followers is “clearly deceptive”
  • Followers participating in contests used to promote a given brand must make that fact clear (preferably by using “contest” or “sweepstakes” in the hashtag
  • The client is ultimately responsible for the individuals who post on its behalf
  • Sponsored videos should note their status in the videos themselves (information below is not good enough)

FILES-US-GOVERNMENT-FTC(AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards)

Katie Creaser, VP at New York’s Affect Strategies, says, “it is critical that you understand current FTC guidelines as they relate to social media–and that you’re aware of any revisions or updates.” Yet, despite the FTC’s efforts, the ethical guidelines on endorsement disclosures remain unclear.

For example, when asked whether an athlete/celebrity who doubles as a brand’s spokesperson should make that fact clear in each post, the FTC responds:

“It depends on whether his followers understand that he’s being paid to endorse that product. If they know he’s a paid endorser, no disclosure is needed.”

OK. So what if some do and some don’t? The FTC “recommends” disclosure in all cases–and while that still doesn’t mean that yourself or your client will get in trouble for failing to be clear about paid relationships, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Creaser continues, “It doesn’t matter whether or not the medium has the appropriate number of characters (e.g. 140 characters on Twitter)–disclosure has to occur and be crystal clear–this is not optional.”

“For PR pros, it’s more important than ever to educate spokespeople and hired third parties on disclosure” because the client may ultimately be held responsible.

The key word there, though, is may.

The FTC Q&A contains a whole lot of weasel phrases: “it’s a good idea” to reveal the fact that you work for the company whose products you are hyping on Facebook and a sponsored campaign “probably requires a disclosure.”

Unfortunately, the Q&A doesn’t reveal any real changes in FTC policy.

So while it’s definitely best practice to follow all relevant rules, we can’t imagine the FTC actually cracking down on those who skirt the line until someone files a successful lawsuit against a major brand.