FTC says social media ads have to be held to same rules as traditional ads

by Mary Beth Quirk, The Consumerist

One of the important duties held by the Federal Trade Commission is making sure ads don’t mislead consumers. Yesterday the FTC set out clear rules for short-form ads on social media like Twitter and Facebook as well. Namely, they have to be held to the same basic requirement as other advertising ‘ be upfront about what’s going on.

There’s a bit of fine print that needs to go in even on ads that are only 140 characters in length, reports the Wall Street Journal on the FTC’s recent crackdown.

The agency’s new guidelines say ads must make space for full disclosure, suggesting using flags like ‘Ad:’ at the start of an ad on Twitter or include ‘sponsored.’ But just #Spon won’t cut it, explains the FTC, because that could be confusing to consumers.

The FTC handily provided sample do and don’t tweets. Bad fictitious celebrity: ‘Shooting movie beach scene. Had to lose 30lbs in 6 wks. Thanks Fat-away Pills for making it easy. Typical loss: 1lb/wk. #Spon.’ Not clear enough, says the FTC.

If it’s unable to fit in a disclosure, the ad copy must be changed so that it’s crystal clear what’s going on. Marketers have to make sure these ads aren’t ‘misleading a significant minority of reasonable consumers.’ Basically, would the average reader probably realize this is an ad?

Marketers must also make this effort on mobile ads for smartphones, where it could be harder for an ad to be read.

Twitter currently does have an established method to denote paid advertisements for political candidates ‘ a special box that shows a disclosure when a user hovers over it ‘ so this perhaps could be used for other ads on the social network instead of using up characters.

The only way to get out of disclosing that it’s an ad in mobile or social media form is that if the product can only be bought online and not in a physical store. If that’s the case, the company can post disclosure information on the site offering the product for sale.

Also see: FTC Revises Online Advertising Disclosure Guidelines