Lately it seems my Instagram feed is filled with more than photographs and witty comments. Giveaways, endorsements, and “follow and like” to win contests sponsored by my favorite fashion bloggers and style-influencers are on repeat. But few of those sponsoring contests and endorsing products are consistently following Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations or guidelines.

FTC regulations apply to all endorsements and advertising – including those on social media. Bloggers and others who advertise, endorse, and influence through social media must disclose relationships and connections when they receive free products, compensation, or other perks in exchange for their views. Instagrammers endorsing products, this means you, too. Followers deserve the chance to decide for themselves how much influence an opinion is worth and to know whether a blogger’s “I just love it!” testimonial is influenced by getting the product for free. This is nothing new in the advertising/consumer relationship.  As the FTC has noted, “truth in advertising is important in all media, whether they’ve been around for decades (like, television and magazines) or are relatively new (like, blogs and social media).”

And, recent activity suggests the FTC is monitoring the use of social media by companies and other social media influencers to endorse and advertise products. Case in point: the FTC issued a warning to Cole Haan after the shoe company urged Pinterest followers to post photos of their Cole Haan-clad selves in different settings. The company said it would pick the best one, and it ran the promotion as a contest ($1,000 shopping spree in play). But the FTC found Cole Haan didn’t follow endorsement guidelines for conducting a contest. Hence, the warning.

And, an update of the FTC’s “What People are Asking” page (link here) to informally address questions about its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising as applied to social media.

So, what’s a savvy style-influencer to do?

  1. Know when you’re making an endorsement. An endorsement is “any advertising message consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.” For followers (who also happen to be consumers), lines get blurred on social media where it’s hard to tell from a photograph and comment whether the blogger worked hard for those Louboutins or got a freebie pair in exchange for her fabulous post endorsing the brand. When in doubt, it may be better to safely make an unnecessary disclosure than to be sorry. And, it can’t hurt to let followers know that you have no connection to a brand or a designer but just like the products.
  2. Disclose, disclose, disclose. If you are endorsing a product, then be truthful about it. The requirement for truth in advertising is nothing new. The platform may change but the disclosure rule doesn’t. Disclosures should be made in all forms of social media that you use. Special words aren’t necessary. A simple statement should suffice. For example: “This post is sponsored.” Or, “NARS gave me this lipstick to try.” Twitter character limits require creativity in disclosure. Try “Ad,” “Endorsement,” “Promotion,” or “Paid Opinion” to highlight the nature of your tweet.
  3. Be clear. Don’t hide your disclosure in a disclaimer or at the bottom of your page or post. Place it near the claims and opinions to which it relates. The FTC suggests that written disclosures be distinguished in a font and shade that stands out against the background of the post or tweet. Audio and video disclosures should be delivered in a manner that is easily noticed, read or heard, and understood. And, in some instances, multiple audio or video disclosures may be required depending on the length of the endorsement stream. After all, the whole point of disclosure is for followers to understand that your endorsement is exactly that.