Social Disclosure: Is the FTC Serious?


Social Disclosure: Is the FTC Serious?

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director  |  April 29, 2013

I remember when, back in 2009, I had to let all the people who write or blog for TMC know about the FTC (News - Alert) then-new rules regarding disclosure of paid reviews and the nature of product results compared to the norm. (I was in Arizona for AstriCon at the time.) I also remember the response from some of the blogosphere about how insane that was.

The fact is, in an eEverything world, where traditional limitations on space don’t exist, and where reach is extended to anyone with broadband access, smart marketers and sales teams will look for every opportunity to maximize impressions. That means leveraging unsuspecting readers’ thirst for the latest hot information to promote their product – in many cases, leveraging a recognized personality to attract attention. I mean, outside of Cleveland residents, who wouldn’t buy a Samsung (News - Alert) Galaxy Note II after hearing how much @KingJames loves it?

Understanding the nature of the marketing and advertising business is hype – not necessarily full disclosure – the FTC has appropriately taken its mandate to the next logical level, applying its principles to the eWorld of social media and mobile advertising. This, from the latest FTC guidance, its .com Disclosure Report:

“The general principles of advertising law apply online, but new issues arise almost as fast as technology develops — most recently, new issues have arisen concerning space-constrained screens and social media platforms.”

What the document points out is that, while bloggers can easily note they are providing a paid review or promotional post, online advertising and social media elements have much less real estate with which to deliver “truth in advertising.” Within their allotted real estate, ads and other promotional elements must indicate they are such and, in cases where above average results are being promoted (weight loss, energy efficiency, cost savings, etc.), “typical results” must also be indicated – no longer is it simply enough to note that results in the promo are above average.

Putting this into perspective, what the FTC is now mandating is that, in addition to small online ads having to ensure accuracy of information, @KobeBryant and other celebs who regularly promote brands via their tweets and posts, must indicate they are being paid to promote those devices, shoes, and other products.

So, instead of tweeting, “Rockin My fav Js at the dunk contest #spriteslam,” you can expect to see from Kobe: “Ad: Rocking my fav Js at the dunk contest #spriteslam (avg Nike purchaser doesn’t play BB after high school).”

Or, you can expect LeBron to write: “(paid) I'm still rocking my #galaxynote2 just wanted to share a screenshot I got to celebrate my cousin's skills... he's nice with it!....(Samsung does not make me a better player)”

I think not.

It’s not likely that social media users are going to start abiding by these guidelines – and perhaps the FTC mandate isn’t actually meant for these situations. But, the truth is that Kobe, LeBron, and so many other celebrities make the majority of their fortunes through endorsement deals. So, where does the line get drawn? What if Shaquille O’Neal actually likes his Buick Lacrosse? Does that mean he isn’t able to tweet about it without identifying it as an advertisement?

While, in principle, I don’t disagree with the FTC’s intentions, social media is, by definition, interpersonal interaction and, at some point, we have to allow people to be either intelligent or not. Let’s face it, Shaq doesn’t really fit into the Lacrosse so, a tweet about how much he loves the car, regardless of how much he smiles, shouldn’t carry much weight.

But, why is it unreasonable to think any of these three athletes does like their Nike footwear? After all, they wear them for a living – try playing any sport with shoes that are uncomfortable.

The point is twofold. How can anyone determine when tweets and Facebook (News - Alert) posts are more advertising than reality? Also, who is going to monitor social media to ensure these guidelines are being followed? And I haven’t even touched on the idea of retweets and other republication, which the FTC guidelines also address.

Do I like the fact that we now have to deal with social media spam? Absolutely not and, in theory, I agree with the FTC’s motivation. But, it is all part of the world Zuck and @Biz have created for us – and with our participation in such social channels comes a certain responsibility to behave intelligently – both when posting and reading. The FTC will be better off focusing on advertising methods it actually is able to monitor and let social be just that – social.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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