The FTC updated their .com Disclosure guidelines for the first time since 2000. It took 13 years for them to modernize this document, only to put out the message that it doesn’t matter what medium advertisements are on – print, radio, TV, social – the same exact rules apply. However, when you dive a little deeper, you reach the PDF’s updated laws for advertisement disclosures – specifically for Twitter and celebrity endorsements.
The new guidelines apply to all social networks, but the FTC focused specifically on Twitter because of its infamous 140 character limit. Sites with longer character limits have no excuse for leaving out disclosures, but twitter’s micro-posts have raised many questions about ad ethics over the years. Now any paid endorsement must include two parts: 1. the statement that it’s an advertisement and not an organic tweet and 2. the acknowledgment that the product might not work exactly as the endorser promises.
First, it’s not enough to include a hyperlink in tweets that lead to product disclosures. The probability that the average follower clicks on that link is low, so ad copy must share the 140 characters with disclosures. If not, anyone who reads a tweet and then buys the product in a store can argue that he or she was misled by the online endorsement.
While this seems like a copywriter’s nightmare (140 characters is limited enough, what do you mean I have to write a disclaimer for it too?) the FTC provided examples and ways for businesses to keep their disclosures short and sweet. For part one, they encourage users to begin every sponsored tweet with “#ad:” so followers know what they’re getting into. The FTC even went so far as to explain how the commonly used “#spon” hashtag confuses readers – especially when placed at the end.
For the second part, mentioning that the product may not work as well for the average user as it does for most celebrities, the FTC showed that adding words like “typically” or “about” prevents misleading statements. The common example they used throughout was a celebrity endorsing a weight loss product: “Typical loss: 1 lb/wk.”
Naturally advertisers have to use common sense when creating endorsed tweets, yes they have to follow these rules, but all products don’t need disclaimers. If Starbucks were to pay a celebrity to tweet, they wouldn’t have to cover their bases with “Yum, Caramel Macciatos at Starbucks are typically delicious!” however, they would still need to use the “#ad:” hashtag.
Leaving no stone unturned, the FTC even outlined how disclaimers must be included in the same tweet, not broken into back-to-back tweets. A disclaimer tweeted seconds after an advertisement can get lost in the shuffle and missed by consumers. (The short version of the guidelines could have read: idiot-proof your ads so you don’t get sued.)
The question to ask about these guidelines is whether or not the new rules decrease the pull of paid celebrity endorsements. Should marketers still pay Snoop Dogg $8,000 per tweet if his 10 million followers know to stop reading once they see the “#ad:” hashtag? If celebrities will endorse any company willing to write a check, do their tweets mean more than other sponsored stories?