The FTC is again increasing enforcement of disclosure rules for influencer marketing, per a report on Bloomberg. Last year, the government laid out and heavily promoted updated influencer marketing rules it is now using to judge whether social media creators who feature products are sufficiently clear about their relationship to the brand involved. Even as news continues to come out about campaigns with Warner Brothers and Lord & Taylor being called out for violations, the quirks of various social media networks are proving that a one-size-fits-all enforcement plan is challenging.
For example, how can the government track whether disclosures appeared on disappearing content on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram? Some live streaming platforms do not allow playbacks of content so those ephemeral experiences can also prove difficult for enforcement. The FTC has even come down on photo-driven sites like Instagram and Pinterest that typically hashtag disclosures like “#sp” (“Sponsored”) because they often appear with so many other hashtags and can get lost by viewers. Add this to the concern that short-format social platforms like Twitter have limited room in which to include disclosures and it is easy to see why brands, influencers and the government alike are struggling with this issue.
Compliance Is Smart for Brands, Influencers and Audiences
The solutions are starting to appear now and they are coming from the collaboration of smart brands and influencers using the tools available on each platform. AdWeek reported that the hashtag #ad and #paid are starting to show up on Snapchat’s biggest influencer channels. While Snapchat’s loose content requirements had made it a common place for undisclosed influencer marketing in the past, the recent addition of Memories to the platform makes it easy to include a hashtag right on the content. Some of the largest influencers on the platform, like Shonduras and Josh Peck, are already making use of regular use of the #paid hashtag to call out that they were compensated for mention of products.
Vincent Juarez, Principal at the Influencer Orchestration Network, points out that the FTC disclosure are not hard to follow, “The rules are clear—just be ‘honest and not misleading.’ For short-format or ephemeral platforms, the FTC has agreed that ‘#ad’ effectively notes that the influencer has been compensated in some way. For YouTube videos, influencers should state that they are working with the brand, received compensation or complimentary products. Then, creators are free to create great content they know their audiences will love.”
Brands who worry that disclosures will make influencer content seem less appealing will want to weigh the good with the bad. In addition to ensuring compliance, disclosures allow the influencer to be upfront about products they are discussing with an audience that loves their work. In fact, social media creators generally welcome disclosures. These notices help differentiate content created on their own from sponsored content, helping sustain their authenticity as a whole. “Creators have such a close relationship with their audiences that disclosures can sometimes make fans feel like their friend is getting a great opportunity,” adds Juarez. “For example, Michelle Phan was thrilled about working with Marvel and TinyCo as the voice of Jessica Jones in the Avengers Academy app. She knew her fans would be happy for her. Part of her disclosure was right in the video as she spoke about her excitement about doing the voiceover work.” She put a disclosure in the video description but including it in the video made sure her audience knew she’d been compensated for her work.
Make no mistake—there will be members of any audience who will complain about sponsored content. This is still the Internet and there will always be rants posted in the comments section of just about every piece of content ever created. However, the positive sentiment will easily outweigh the negative if the influencer and the brand are clear about their relationship.
Influencer Marketing Rules For Disclosure
At the end of the day, the FTC puts the burden on brands to police the influencers with whom they work. The government considers it to be the brand’s campaign and their responsibility to ensure influencers are instructed about how to disclose their participation in it. Some key points from the FTC’s guidelines:
- No effort should be made to obscure a relationship between the creator and a brand sponsoring content.
- Endorsements should be clearly labeled with unambiguous language, including the brand’s name whenever possible.
- Disclosures should be large enough to read, in a color that makes it easy to see and present on screen for long enough to be read and understood.
- #ad hashtags should not be buried within a large number of other hashtags. To ensure exposure, the #ad should appear at or near the beginning of the text on the post or video.
- Audio disclosures should be read aloud without other distractions and at a speed that is understandable.
Keep in mind that these disclosures extend well beyond the realm of social media creators. The FTC is looking at examples of traditional celebrity endorsements as well. Whether an influencer is being directly compensated or has a financial relationship with the brand, best practices are to disclose the connections or transaction involved.
The FTC’s Ad Practice Division deputy, Michael Ostheimer, noted to Bloomberg that consumers need protection from deceptive practices that can crop up from this new ad format. “We believe consumers put stock in endorsements and we want to make sure they are not being deceived.”
Disclosures are the law and the FTC continues to work hard to get the word out to brands and influencers alike. Ignorance of the law will not protect marketers and social media creators who fail to include disclaimers in their influencer marketing campaigns. While the recent settlements with Warner Brothers and Lord & Taylor may seem like ‘wrist-slaps’, the FTC can enforce fines in the range of $11,000 per violating post. While they have not yet handed out fines of that size, the FTC is committed to protecting consumers from marketing campaigns that seek to engage them under false pretenses.
The true value of influencer marketing is the ease with which brands can build strong relationships with audiences through social media creators that have already cultivated a connection with them. If brands and influencers want to gain the trust of their audiences and prospects, being clear about their relationship is an ideal way to start.