“New” guidance document will likely disappoint watchdog groups
How many ways can you say the same thing before you go stark raving mad? Ask the folks over at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Earlier this month, the FTC released a new guidance document for online influencers imaginatively titled “Advertising Disclosures Guidance for Online Influencers.”
And you’ve heard most of these guidelines before. “The new publication summarizes the FTC’s existing guidance in this area,” the FTC writes, “including the FTC’s Endorsement Guides and a 2017 question-and-answer document produced by staff.”
(Note: Let us be clear about something. Regardless of the lack of new information, if you are an influencer, or someone who’s working with influencers, you should read the document for reasons that are obvious at this point. And read it again before your next endorsement, whether you were paid for it or not.)
While there doesn’t appear to be any novel legal insight here, there’s history behind this latest effort.
We’ve covered it before, of course: Truth In Advertising Inc.’s (TINA) ongoing campaign to motivate the FTC into action over influencer misbehavior. The watchdog group has been writing letters to the FTC outlining ad violations for more than two years now; it claims to have found “more than 1,400 examples [of violations] across … 20 influencers collectively promoting more than 500 companies.”
And despite FTC letters warning influencers about their infractions, TINA’s continuing complaint is that the FTC isn’t doing much of anything else, which it expressed in its March letter: “It has now been almost two years since the FTC initially notified these influencers of their obligation to refrain from actively deceiving their social media followers,” the letter states. “Yet all but one of them have continued to mislead their fan base … by refusing to consistently and appropriately disclose their material connections to the brands they are promoting.”
This latest guide document comes after months of pressure from watchdog groups and continued influencer misbehavior. However, it is unlikely watchdog groups such as TINA will be completely satisfied with this new FTC guidance, as this renewed guidance does not demonstrate a planned or current uptick in FTC enforcement.
Nonetheless, online influence is now a recognized commodity. With each passing quarter, it becomes more well-defined and monitored. And as the online influence community continues to grow in prominence, the FTC will likely feel continued pressure to bring more enforcement actions.
It’s hard to imagine how the guidelines could be made any clearer – and eventually the FTC will have to assume that repeat offenders are simply ignoring the rules or can’t understand them in some fundamental way.
So we say to everybody who’s part of this arrangement – influencers, companies and the platforms that connect them – saddle up. You need to embrace an ongoing, thorough, soup-to-nuts evaluation of your adverts, guided by competent and knowledgeable counsel. Or you might be unpleasantly surprised when the FTC finally loses its patience and brings additional enforcement actions against companies and influencers that fail to abide by the FTC guidance.