FTC headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jonathan B. Morgan, FTC)
The Federal Trade Commission has issued a factsheet on last year’s revisions to its guidelines on testimonials and endorsements in advertising. Those revisions made it clear the FTC includes social media within its jurisdiction. Bloggers who engage in compensated buzz marketing and are not upfront about it are running afoul of federal unfair-competition law, under the new guidelines.
Attorney Eric P. Robinson has analysis at CMLP.
I’ve gotta say, I think this FTC factsheet is really well written. Kudos to the FTC. It’s really refreshing to see legal guidance doled out with phrases like,
It’s all pretty common sense: Don’t mislead readers into thinking that you are giving an unbiased testimonial if you’re on the take.
If you want an example of someone who doesn’t get it, check out the story of the New York Times food critic who reviewed the food at his own wedding. Ah, the taste of integrity!
In the factsheet, FTC helpfully boils the guidelines down to three key points:
The revised Guides – issued after public comment and consumer research – reflect three basic truth-in-advertising principles:
- Endorsements must be truthful and not misleading;
- If the advertiser doesn’t have proof that the endorser’s experience represents what consumers will achieve by using the product, the ad must clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected results in the depicted circumstances; and
- If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.
Then, the FTC answers your questions. Here are a few of the Q&A pairs:
What are the essential things I need to know about using endorsements in advertising?
The most important principle is that an endorsement has to represent the accurate experience and opinion of the endorser:
- You can’t talk about your experience with a product if you haven’t tried it.
- If you were paid to try a product and you thought it was terrible, you can’t say it’s terrific.
- You can’t make claims about a product that would require proof you don’t have. For example, you can’t say a product will cure a particular disease if there isn’t scientific evidence to prove that’s true.
Do the Guides hold online reviewers to a higher standard than reviewers for paper-and-ink publications?
No. The Guides apply across the board. The issue is – and always has been – whether the audience understands the reviewer’s relationship to the company whose products are being reviewed. If the audience gets the relationship, a disclosure isn’t needed. …
I’ve heard that every time I mention a product on my blog, I have to say whether I got it for free or paid for it myself. Is that true?
No. If you mention a product you paid for yourself, the Guides aren’t an issue. Nor is it an issue if you get the product for free because a store is giving out free samples to all its customers. The Guides cover only endorsements that are made on behalf of a sponsoring advertiser. …
What if all I get from the company is a $1-off coupon, or if the product is only worth a few dollars? Do I still have to disclose?
Here’s another way to think of it: While getting one item that’s not very valuable for free may not affect the credibility of what you say, sometimes continually getting free stuff from an advertiser or multiple advertisers is enough to suggest an expectation of future benefits from positive reviews. If you have a relationship with a marketer who’s sending you freebies in the hope you’ll write a positive review, it’s best if your readers know you got the product for free.
I have a website that reviews local restaurants. It’s clear when a restaurant pays for an ad on my website, but do I have to disclose which restaurants give me free meals?
If you get free meals, it’s best to let your readers know so they can factor that in when they read your reviews. Some readers might conclude that if a restaurant gave you a free meal because it knew you were going to write a review, you might have gotten special food or service.
Is there special language I have to use to make the disclosure?
No. The point is to give readers the information. Your disclosure could be as simple as “Company X gave me this product to try . …”
Do I have to hire a lawyer to help me write a disclosure?
No. What matters is effective communication, not legalese. A disclosure like “Company X sent me [name of product] to try, and I think it’s great” gives your readers the information they need. …
Would a single disclosure on my home page that “many of the products I discuss on this site are provided to me free by their manufacturer” be enough?
A single disclosure doesn’t really do it because people visiting your site might read individual reviews or watch individual videos without seeing the disclosure on your home page.
What about a platform like Twitter? How can I make a disclosure when my message is limited to 140 characters?
The FTC isn’t mandating the specific wording of disclosures. However, the same general principle – that people have the information they need to evaluate sponsored statements – applies across the board, regardless of the advertising medium. A hashtag like “#paid ad” uses only 8 characters. Shorter hashtags – like “#paid” and “#ad” – also might be effective.
Are you monitoring bloggers?
We’re not monitoring bloggers and we have no plans to. If concerns about possible violations of the FTC Act come to our attention, we’ll evaluate them case by case. If law enforcement becomes necessary, our focus will be advertisers, not endorsers – just as it’s always been.