Sorry, celebrities and influencers: In a Twitter chat on Wednesday afternoon, the Federal Trade Commission said that it’s not enough to rely on the built-in features provided by Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to indicate if something is a sponsored post.
The FTC has not, until now, been specific about the issue, but during the chat (which used the hashtag #Influencers101), it came out definitively against built-in social media disclosures as being sufficient:
Instagram announced a feature in June that would allow influencers to do certain posts with a geotag that says “paid partnership with [Brand].” At the time, the FTC declined to comment when asked by BuzzFeed News if they would accept this as a good enough disclosure for sponsored posts.
Other platforms were already offering similar features. Facebook launched a “tag the sponsor”-type feature at the end of 2016. It says “Katie with [Brand]” and the “Paid” below in a small font. It’s pretty easy to miss.
On YouTube, anyone can check a small box in the bottom corner of the “Advanced Settings” that allows you to say it’s a paid ad and you want YouTube to show its disclosure feature. That disclosure feature, which launched in October 2016, is tiny white lettering that appears near the play button for the beginning of the video. It’s...not exactly super easy to see.
These built-in features from platforms are kind of a halfway–bandage approach: The platforms seem aware that these features are probably not going to pass muster with the FTC and other trade commissions like the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practices, but they don’t offer any warning to their users that using the tool isn’t enough. And that’s probably because ultimately, it’s up to the creators, celebrities, and influencers on these social platforms to be upfront about ads. On Wednesday, the FTC made it clear that it wants to see things like #ad (not vague terms like #ambassador, #hosted, or #collab) clearly placed in an Instagram caption, or superimposed on an image in an Instagram story. For YouTube videos, influencers should say in the video itself that it’s an ad, as well as in the video title and description. Facebook gives you plenty of text space in a status to mention that something is an ad or promotion.
In fact, by providing a weak way of disclosing ads, these social platforms are making things worse for influencers, who might assume that the platform’s built-in feature is good enough. They likely figure that if they check that box, then they don’t need to say #ad in a caption or elsewhere — when in fact, they do. And this means that their fans won’t all be able to discern if what they’re seeing is something their favorite celebrity is genuinely recommending, or if it's something that celeb was paid to promote.
The FTC recently cracked down — for the first time ever — on individual Instagram celebrities who were doing undisclosed advertisements. (In the past, the FTC has gone after brands and marketers for undisclosed social ads, but never the individuals.) On September 6, they sent letters to 21 celebrities, including Ciara, Scott Disick, Amber Rose, and Vanessa Hudgens, that warned them about undisclosed ads they had posted.
Even before Wednesday’s Twitter chat, the FTC already had guidelines on its website that said that disclosure features from social networks (they don’t get specific) aren't enough on their own. While the guidelines are long and it’s likely that not all influencers have combed through them, brands are also responsible for making sure their influencers are compliant. In the #Influencers101 chat, the FTC did say that if a brand has given an influencer the rules and they continue to flout them, they should no longer advertise with the influencer and would not be held responsible for the influencer's non-compliance.
Judging from the number of questions during the FTC's Twitter chat, influencers are still pretty confused about the rules – what counts as an ad, and how to disclose it. The fact that social platforms have tools that aren't clear enough doesn't help either. With confusion on all ends, it's still as hard as ever for regular people to know when they're seeing an ad on social media.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.