The Federal Trade Commission has begun cracking down on content from social media influencers whose posts aren’t recognizable as advertising. On Wednesday, the FTC revealed that it had sent 90 letters to influencers and their brand partners, clarifying the sponsored posts’ guidelines. Previously, the FTC stated that anyone with a “material connection” to an advertiser needed to clarify that connection. But because terms have not been defined well, some sponsored posts have skirted the line, adhering to the letter but not the guidelines.
So now, using unclear hashtags like #sp or #spon to indicate sponsored content does not meet the requirements and is not enough as consumers might not understand. Neither should the disclosures be hidden within strings of ignored hashtags, nor should they be such that the viewer’s viewer is required to click to see the post’s full content before they appear. The disclosures on Instagram must be in the first three lines of a post.
The relationship between influencers and brands leaves adherence to guidelines in the hands of the influencers, not brands. Influencers write and post the sponsored content, so it falls to brands and agencies to ensure that the people they pay to promote their products also take care of guidelines while ensuring that the brand has acted in good faith.
Some agencies which work with influencers agree that “the role of influencers is to support and to amplify traditional marketing. Yes, branded posts are less obvious to the common consumer but if the content is of high-quality and relevance, then the caption is not significant,” said Brian Salzman, founder of relationship-marketing agency RQ.
The FTC letters don’t have any penalties for failure to comply, but the regulations have forced companies to change their business practices, as did Warner Bros. in the previous year.
Even the threat of legal action can prompt influencers to shape up. Let’s take an example: In July 2016, Kylie Jenner changed her Instagram post to clarify that an Airbnb stay she praised on social media had been a gift from the company. The original post read “thanks for the birthday home @airbnb,” while the updated post now reads “thanks for the gift of a lovely birthday home, @airbnb.”
Some influencers might think of ignoring guidelines as more beneficial. The FTC’s civil fine is $40,000, but Instagram accounts with 3 and 7 million followers can easily make $75,000 for a single post. It means that influencers who have less following and can make only $1,000 for a post or receive a product in exchange for a positive review are in danger of bearing the brunt of the regulations.
Ultimately, the ones to blame are the brands that work with influencers, not the influencers themselves, while responsible companies have already met the guidelines’ requirements.