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FTC clarifies influencer guidelines

Federal Trade Commission warns that platforms' built-in disclosure methods aren't sufficient, reviews of products given for free must be marked as ads

The Federal Trade Commission wants social media influencers to shape up when it comes to disclosure of sponsorships and other financial ties. In a Twitter Q&A about its policies yesterday, the group held up a recent settlement with YouTubers endorsing a Counter-Strike betting site they owned as an example of its increased attention on the subject, saying it had also sent 21 warning letters to other influencers engaged in suspect behavior.

Over the course of the Q&A, the FTC warned influencers not to rely on disclosures built into social media platforms, specifically stating that its staff does not believe YouTube's "includes paid promotion" mark, the "Paid" tag on Facebook, or Instagram's default disclosure to be adequate. However, not all of the guidelines were so straight forward. Putting "#ad" on a sponsored Twitter post should be sufficient, but if it's in the midst of a number of hashtags people are likely to skip over, then it might not be considered adequate disclosure. Additionally, tags like "#spon," "#ambassador," and "#collab" are considered too ambiguous, as is a generic "thanks."

All of these disclosures must be made up front in hard to miss fashion. That means it's not enough to include full disclosure if it's hidden behind the "More" button in a YouTube video's description. If the platform in question is Snapchat or Instagram, the FTC wants to see the disclosure superimposed directly over the images. Even a Facebook "like" counts as an endorsement, although the FTC acknowledged there's no method for disclosure in that system.

Disclosures are also required on reviews of items the influencer received for free, even if there was no payment involved and no agreement that anything would be posted in exchange for the item. The FTC said that counts as an ad, suggesting that any YouTuber relying on review keys must clearly disclose whatever content comes from that as sponsored material.

That may seem to be holding influencers to a higher standard of disclosure than more established media outlets, but the FTC insists it is not because the audience of those traditional outlets understands the nature of the relationship better.

"If you're employed by a newspaper or TV station to give reviews - whether online or offline - your audience probably understands that your job is to provide your personal opinion on behalf of the newspaper or television station," it stated in a FAQ for its guidelines. "In that situation, it's clear that you did not buy the product yourself - whether it's a book or a car or a movie ticket. On a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader might not realize that the reviewer has a relationship with the company whose products are being recommended. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review."

As for the obligations of brands and advertisers who use influencers, they seem easier to fulfill. The FTC says they should give influencers advice about proper disclosure, then monitor to ensure it is followed. If not, the brand should follow up with the influencer, "But if an influencer doesn't listen & is dismissed, then that's all brand can do."

Those with lingering questions about the FTC's guidelines were encouraged to reach out to endorsements@ftc.gov.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.