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Not Even The FTC Knows What Exactly #Spon Looks Like

The Federal Trade Commission recently went after 47 celebrities and brands for violating its rules on sponsored Instagrams. But many of them weren't even actually ads.

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The FTC recently sent letters to brands and celebrities to remind them of the rules about posting Instagram ads.

We tend to think of Instagram ads as those really obvious ones for diet teas or teeth whiteners. But this list shows there’s a much broader definition of an ad, at least according to the FTC, which considers any “material relationship” with a product to be an ad.

This could be that you are getting paid to post it, or that you got free merch, or that you’re a part owner of a brand or have some other financial stake. There's a lot of gray area.

That’s why we’re posting all the Instagrams that the FTC sent letters about — so that you can see what types of posts they actually consider to be undisclosed ads.

In its announcement about the letters, the FTC acknowledged that it had not fact-checked the ads in question. "The staff’s letters were sent in response to a sample of Instagram posts making endorsements or referencing brands," the commission wrote. "In sending the letters, the staff did not predetermine in every instance whether the brand mention was in fact sponsored, as opposed to an organic mention."

BuzzFeed News attempted to fact-check these by reaching out to the brands to ask if the celebrity was paid or got a freebie. What we found is that there were lots of different kinds of ads — sometimes the celeb was part owner of a brand or got free stuff. Or maybe it was an ad, but they didn't disclose it the right way — either they made no attempt to disclose it at all, or they tried but didn't get it quite right.

In a few instances, it turned out that the FTC got it wrong — the "ad" wasn’t an ad at all.

This just goes to show that if the FTC can't tell from looking at an Instagram post if something is an ad or not — and when a media outlet called up the brand to ask, we still couldn't find an answer — how the heck are normal people supposed to know when something is an ad??


1. Shay Mitchell (Kettle chips)

Kettle confirmed to BuzzFeed News that this is NOT an ad — the company has no relationship with the Pretty Little Liars actor and had no idea she was posting this. She clearly just happened to be eating a bag of Kettle chips when she took this pic.

2. Sophia Bush (Sakara, an organic-food delivery service)

Sakara confirmed that the Chicago Fire actor is just a regular paying customer; she didn't get any thing free, nor was she paid.

[Note: She later expanded her caption to explain her food choices in response to fans saying she should eat more food, not questioning whether or not the post is an ad.]

3. Nicky Jam (Adidas)

deleted instagram

First of all, Adidas doesn't make knitted baby booties, so these weren't a free product they gave the reggaeton singer. These are from a Spanish company called Romeo Babe that makes knitted versions of real sneakers. The photo is taken from their website.

Nicky Jam's manager told BuzzFeed News that someone tagged him in a photo of the shoes on Instragram, and Nicky simply thought they were cute, so he reposted it. No endorsement or free shoes from Adidas or Romeo Babe. Just the pure love of an adult man for some cute baby shoes.

4. Kristin Cavallari (LORAC and Chanel makeup)

deleted instagram

LORAC confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it did not send her free products or have any endorsement deal with her. Chanel did not respond to a request for comment.

It makes sense that this isn't an ad, since she has three different beauty brands (LORAC, Chanel, and Oribe) in the same shot.


5. Caroline Manzo (HelloFresh food-box delivery)

Yes, this was an ad, and the Real Housewives of New Jersey star is a paid spokesperson. But Manzo only put #sp at the end. The FTC says #sp isn't clear enough.

HelloFresh told BuzzFeed News: "HelloFresh values transparency and clarity when it comes to working with our social media influencers. We've implemented a social media policy that emphasizes the best practices laid out by the FTC, and disseminated the information throughout our organization. Additionally, we compiled a number of resources, which we share with each influencer we onboard in order to comply with all disclosure requirements disseminated by the FTC."

Shay Mitchell (Bioré)

Shay is a "Bioré ambassador" — she tags other Instragram posts with #BioreAmbassador. This one isn't tagged.

But even if she DID use the tag #BioreAmbassador, the FTC thinks that isn't clear enough. Most people don't understand exactly what an "ambassador" means, even if they could probably guess this is some sort of an ad.

6. Ashley Benson (Nip + Fab)

Ashley has now deleted this post. You can see she uses the hashtag #sp, but the FTC doesn't think that #sp is clear enough — they want you to write out the full hashtag #sponsored.


7. Giuliana Rancic (Compeed blister bandages)


The E! News host uses the hashtag #partner at the end of her post, but the FTC doesn't think the term "partner" is clear enough. Also, if this was in your feed, the caption would get cut off by the [...] after three lines, and no one would see the #partner anyway. They want the ad disclosure to be clear and before the [...].

8. Jenni "JWoww" Farley (FabFitFun)

This post uses #FFFpartner, but that's not considered clear enough, and it's all the way at the end of the caption, which would get cut off in the feed.


10. Tiona Fernan (Flat Tummy Tea)

Flat Tummy Tea is familiar to everyone on Instagram for doing tons and tons of influencer ads. They didn't respond to requests, but a rep for Tiona was confused when asked about the letter (the FTC sent one via email, and the rep says they never received it).

In this photo, she doesn't have a caption at all; she's just posing with the stuff.

12. Emily Ratajkowski (Nip + Fab pads)

NOTE: Ratajkowski has updated the caption on her post — now it includes "#ad." Originally, it just read:

"Thanks @nipandfab for these insane glycolic night fix pads. Ready for my bday week @cvspharmacy @mrsrodial #nipandfab"

The company did not respond to a request for comment, but considering she updated the post, it's pretty fair to say she was doing an ad. And it's probably likely that Ashley Benson, who was posting about the same product but deleted her post, was also doing an ad.

13. Rach Parcell (EOS)

Parcell is a lifestyle blogger with lots of photos of her cute kids and pink outfits. Since receiving the FTC letter, she's updated the caption, but ironically it's STILL not FTC compliant — including "#ad" at the end of a caption that's over three lines isn't sufficient, since the hashtag will get cut off when you view it in the feed.


Here's the old caption (no #ad) vs. new caption (#ad, but still not FTC compliant):

15. Lindsay Lohan (Pinnertest)

The Pinnertest here is a test for "food sensitivities." BuzzFeed recently exposed that the science behind this test is dubious at best. Still, the test advertises with a lot of celebrities (Mario Lopez and one of the Real Housewives, for example). Lohan's post does not disclose at all.

16. Maci Bookout McKinney (Flat Belly Tea)

Flat Belly Tea did not reply to emails, and there's no attempt at disclosure in the Teen Mom star's post.


18. Scott Disick (Pearly Whites Australia)

One of the greatest moments in #spon history was when Scott Disick accidentally copy/pasted the entire email that told him what the caption should say for his ad, not just the ad copy. Lord Disick is no stranger to the pleasures of teeth whitening ads, and here is a prime example.

19. Chelsea Houska (Love With Food box)

The Teen Mom 2 star has deleted this photo, but you can see in the comments in the screenshot that one fan is discussing the fact that this post clearly seems to be advertising. The other comments, though, are actually people asking about the snack box — which means it's pretty effective advertising.

Vanessa Hudgens (Hasbro/My Little Pony)

Instagram: @vanessahudgens

Hasbro did not return requests for clarification, but Hudgens has updated her post — notice how it says #ad at the beginning? It didn't say that when she originally posted it. She edited her caption after receiving the FTC letter.


Original caption vs. current caption:

20. Lilly Ghalichi (HAIRtamin)

The woman in the photo is NOT the woman who posted this. It was posted by Lilly Ghalichi, a former star of the reality show Shahs of Sunset and a makeup artist with her own line of false eyelashes. She reposted a photo of some other Instagram model who was doing an ad, while doing an ad herself. Sneaky!

Ghalichi just got married, and her wedding photos on Instragram are chock-full of sponsor tags for various wedding-related items, but the posts don't indicate whether or not she received any items or services for free.


23. James Harrison (Optimum EFX supplements)

Deleted instagram

This is clearly some type of ad — he gives his promo code. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers' linebacker was one of two celebrities who did NOT post any new ads at all in the six weeks after receiving their first FTC letters. I do highly recommend Harrison's Instagram, because it's almost entirely his bonkers workout in the gym, and it's really fun to watch his videos.

25. Zendaya (Puma)

Puma didn't respond to requests for comment, but if I could make an educated guess, I'd say she got a free pair of the Rihanna shoes.


26. Jen Selter (Adidas)

Jen Selter is a fitness model known for, well, having a great butt. She wears Nike sneakers in other Instagrams, so it's highly unlikely she's an official Adidas spokesperson, but it's *possible* she got this shirt for free. She tags @Adidas in the photo, but perhaps she's just thinks it looks cool?

Adidas and Selter didn't return requests for comment.

27. Ciara (Buscemi shoes)

Instagram: @ciara

Buscemi didn't respond to inquiries, but this seems like it's probably a free gift. This sneaker brand is really expensive — they're around $500.

Ciara definitely seems to have some sort of relationship with this shoe company. One of the first photos she posted recently after having a baby girl was the photo below of pink Buscemi baby shoes.

28. Dorothy Wang (Buscemi shoes)

Instagram: @dorothywang

Dorothy Wang was on the E! shows Rich Kids of Instagram and Famously Single. After receiving her FTC letter, she's continued to do plenty of undisclosed ads, including ads for the somewhat dubious-looking Medi Spa IV-drip treatments. If you figure that the worst that happens with this ad is that someone is unduly influenced to go buy a pair of sneakers, that's not so bad. But not disclosing you're getting paid to endorse an IV vitamin treatment performed in a plastic surgeon's office, well, that's kind of different stakes.


29. Lucy Hale (Chiara Ferragni shoes)

Are these shoes a free gift? Maybe? Probably? Who knows! The shoe company did not reply to questions.

Lucy Hale (We the Dreamers clothing)

The Pretty Little Liars actor has since deleted this post. She originally wrote, "thank you @katevoegele for my pants! (and @danielsarahdib) get yours @wtdreamers." Kate Voegele is the owner of the clothing line We the Dreamers, which makes the pineapple pants. I can't imagine it's clear to the average person that she's thanking the brand's owner and not just a friend who gave her a gift.

31. Allen Iverson (IO Moonwalkers hoverboards)

A phone number for IO Moonwalkers was disconnected, and they did not return email requests for comment. Iverson's caption suggests that he at least got a free board, but it's unclear if he was compensated beyond that.

The basketball star was one of only two celebrities on this list who did not post any ads since receiving the letter back in March. Which is probably a good thing, since he doesn't exactly make the most enthusiastic spokesperson based on this photo.


34. Denice Moberg (Nutramino supplements)

Nutramino said that fitness model Denice Moberg was part of a group of Swedish influencers who received free supplements from the company to test and review, and then tell their fans if they liked the products. They were not paid beyond that. Moberg put "Nutramino athlete" in her bio to show her affiliation with the brand (uh, that is not proper disclosure).

Nutramino said, "Since receipt of the FTC letter, Glanbia Performance Nutrition (Nutramino) conducted a review of its athlete communications guidelines. We remain committed to complying with applicable regulations and guidance in this area."


35. Anna Petrosian (Kat Von D makeup)

Anna Petrosian is a makeup artist with a big following. A rep for Kat Von D cosmetics couldn't recall if they had specifically sent her free merchandise, but said that sending samples of their latest products to prominent makeup artists to try out was a standard practice.

36. Victoria Beckham (Lancer makeup)

A rep for the Lancer skin care line said that Beckham got this as a free gift but she was not paid to post about it.

37. Amber Rose (Fred and Far jewelry)

Fred and Far confirmed to BuzzFeed News that this was NOT an ad — but the company did send Amber Rose a free ring out of admiration. Rose did not ask for the ring, and was not asked to post on Instagram about it. The pinky rings, which symbolize self love, sell for $125, which is far less than what Rose probably gets for an actual advertisement deal.

The founder of Fred and Far said, "We regularly gift women from all walks of life who embody our mission and empower other women to choose and love themselves."

38. Troian Bellisario (Matisse footwear)

Here's what Matisse told BuzzFeed News: "Troian received the boots via a request from her stylist, they were provided free of charge. We did not pay Troian for any posts or mentions. Additionally, we do not pay for social media features of any kind, that is our policy as a company."

It's a common thing for celebrity stylists to "pull" clothing and accessories, often given as free or on loan from the designer/brand. For a minute imagine being a celebrity. Instead of choosing your own shoes, your stylist picks them out, emails the brand asking for a free pair (a $300 value), the brand sends her free shoes, and then she tells you to wear them.

Imagine how divorced from the actual economics of how shoes get on your feet you'd be at this point.


39. Vanessa Lachey (YSL cosmetics)

Emailed L'Oréal. Unclear if ad.


40. Diddy (AQUAhydrate water)

Diddy is partial owner of this bottled water company, kind of like how he owns Cîroc vodka. This is kind of tricky. On one hand, I think most fans aren't really confused here that he owns this and is aggressively promoting it. On the other, the FTC wants people to be crystal clear when they have a monetary relationship to a product they're promoting on social media. So yeah, while this is not exactly spon, he probably should've said #ad.

41. Farrah Abraham (Teespring)

This is confusing because Teespring is a site where you can make your own line of T-shirts to sell. (You provide the design, Teespring makes the shirts, and you split the cash.)

So is she advertising her own "Momtreprenuer" designs that just happen to be made through Teespring? Or did Teespring ask her to post this? Since Teespring didn't answer requests for clarification, I have no idea.


42. Heidi Klum (Dunkin' Donuts)

This one is tricky as well. Dunkin' Donuts told BuzzFeed News that the company did not pay Klum to post this. And after receiving the FTC letter, Klum posted it again, saying that it was not an ad.

However, Dunkin' Donuts is the sponsor of America's Got Talent, and they have these giant cups on the judges' table. Klum's original post was meant to tell fans of the show that she was filming an episode (fans would recognize the distinctive cups).

So Dunkin' didn't pay Heidi Klum to post this Instagram, and they don't pay her at all. But they DO advertise heavily on the TV show she appears on, so in a sense, there's an indirect monetary relationship there.

In my nonlegal opinion, I think two reasonable people could disagree over whether or not Klum is being paid to promote the product.

  1. POLL: Does this count as an ad?

    Yes, because she's aware the company is a sponsor for the show, even though it doesn't pay her directly.
    No, she isn't being paid to post this.
Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later
Looks like we are having a problem on the server.
POLL: Does this count as an ad?
    vote votes
    Yes, because she's aware the company is a sponsor for the show, even though it doesn't pay her directly.
    vote votes
    No, she isn't being paid to post this.

43. Jennifer Lopez (Beluga Vodka)

Beluga Vodka told BuzzFeed News that it's company policy not to comment on whether celebrity Instagrams are ads or not. So make of that what you will.

  1. What do you think J.Lo and Beluga Vodka's deal is?

    Beluga footed the bill for her party, and in exchange she posted this.
    The company gave her free vodka for the party, PLUS some $$$ to create this post.
Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later
Looks like we are having a problem on the server.
What do you think J.Lo and Beluga Vodka's deal is?
    vote votes
    Beluga footed the bill for her party, and in exchange she posted this.
    vote votes
    The company gave her free vodka for the party, PLUS some $$$ to create this post.

45. Luke Bryan (Cabela's sporting goods)

Cabela's did not return calls about this, but Bryan deleted this Instagram. He's since posted other Instagrams that make it clear that Cabela's is a sponsor of his tour — a material relationship that he probably should've disclosed.

46. Massy Arias (Shea Moisture)

Unclear if the fitness blogger actually has any connection to the Shea Moisture brand (we reached out for comment). For one thing, she misspelled the brand's name when she tagged it (its account is @sheamoisture, not @sheamoisture4u). Also, there are other brands in the photo.

But she's also mentioned Shea Moisture products in other blog posts on her personal blog. I truly can't tell if this is an ad or not.

47. Kourtney Kardashian (Popeyes)

Popeyes did not reply, but this is a genuine head-scratcher to me. On one hand, it looks fairly casual, and maybe they just love some bad fast food. It's not tagged, and they just mention the brand name. On the other hand, do Kardashians ever post anything for free?


The names Lilly Ghalichi, Rach Parcell, Emily Ratajkowski, Kate Voegele, Troian Bellisario, and Rihanna were misspelled in an earlier version of this post.

Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture and is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.

Contact Katie Notopoulos at

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