FTC Update: Operation Full Disclosure; Disclosing a compensated trip

by Susan Getgood on October 1, 2014 · 1 comment

in Blog with Integrity,Blogger relations,Ethics

Last Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission issued a press release about its Operation “Full Disclosure.”
The most important thing for bloggers to know about Operation “Full Disclosure” is that it has NOTHING to do with sponsored posts on blogs.  It was aimed squarely at national television and print advertisers that failed to make adequate disclosures in their ads. More than 60 companies received FTC warning letters, largely focusing on disclosures that were in fine print, easy to miss or hard to read.

The FTC Guidelines apply to ALL advertising claims and endorsements – traditional media, social media, even direct word-of-mouth. While its publications and hearings over the past few years have focused on defining and clarifying the guidelines’ impact on social and online media, the FTC clearly hasn’t lost sight of its mandate to protect the consumer from ALL misleading advertising.As the press release clearly summarizes:

“The FTC’s longstanding guidance to companies is that disclosures in their ads should be close to the claims to which they relate – not hidden or buried in unrelated details – and they should appear in a font that is easy to read and in a shade that stands out against the background. Disclosures for television ads should be on the screen long enough to be noticed, read, and understood, and other elements in the ads should not obscure or distract from the disclosures.

The staff letters advised advertisers that to meet the “clear and conspicuous” standard, their disclosures should use clear and unambiguous language and should stand out in the advertising – consumers should be able to notice disclosures easily; they should not have to look for them.”

The purpose of the FTC guidelines is to avoid consumer confusion about advertising messages. By making sure that advertising does not contain misleading statements or hide important facts or conditions, and that any interest, such as compensation or affiliation with a company, an endorser might have in a product she recommends be clearly disclosed.

Store these 3 principal FTC requirements permanently in a room in your mind palace:

  1. Disclosure is required when you are compensated, and you endorse (write or speak about) the entity that compensated you. If you are not compensated, either in cash or goods, there is nothing to disclose.
  2. Claims must be true and the source disclosed (my opinion, scientific research showed…, the company said….)
  3. Disclosures should use clear unambiguous language that stands out and is positioned close to the claim or endorsement.

Speaking of confusion….

There seems to be some confusion in the blogosphere of late as to how the guidelines apply to compensated trips. Here’s my take.

  • If you are PAID to go on a trip, you must disclose whenever you endorse/write/speak about the entity that compensated you. Compensation can be cash, product or service. In your blog posts. In your tweets and Facebook posts. You write about the sponsor, you disclose you were sponsored.
  • If part of a compensated assignment includes a certain number of social shares about the experience but not necessarily about the sponsor, and you are asked to use a specific hashtag and/or link to a website for the sponsor, you must disclose. Including the hashtag or link is a promotional activity for which you were compensated.
  • If you want to tweet about the sunset, or say how tasty the orange juice was at venue that is NOT the sponsor, or whatever,  you don’t need to disclose. You are not endorsing the sponsor, so you don’t need a hashtag or a disclosure. Where there is no compensation, no disclosure is required.
  • That said, if you write an unrelated blog post about elements of the trip that does not include the sponsor, you should still disclose that you were sponsored. Not because the FTC requires it, but because you should give your sponsor the love.
  • When in doubt err on the side of disclosure.

Here is an example, completely made up.

SuperChic Hotel sponsors you on a trip to the Mexican Riviera. They pay your airfare, comp your hotel, restaurant meals and rental car, and give you an allowance for sightseeing and incidentals. How should you disclose:

  • Any time you mention SuperChic Hotel, your readers should know you were sponsored. Blog posts, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, videos. Whatever.  Even if you were not specifically compensated for an activity, such as a pinning. Disclose.
  • Mention the airline, the car rental company, restaurants and boutiques not affiliated with SuperChic Hotel, sightseeing attractions? Unless SuperChic Hotel provided specific instructions on where to go/vendor to use, you do NOT need to disclose a compensated relationship with the vendors. Your relationship is with SuperChic, not with them. That said, as a best practice,  I recommend you disclose that your overall trip was sponsored.
  • Want to tweet about the sand on the beach or the gorgeous sunset. Unless your sponsor is the beach, which is possible, or the sun, which is not, no disclosure required.

This scenario gets a little more complicated if the sponsor is the regional tourist authority, especially if it plans the details of your trip. In that case, I would make the call that anything in the region is supported by the tourist authority, and the relationship should be disclosed with every endorsement. Even the beauty of the beach.

What about a compensated speaking engagement that also pays your way — any or all of fee, comped registration, airfare, hotel? Your presence on the roster of the event is a clear notice of your affiliation with the event. Any reasonable consumer of the conference content understands that you have a relationship with the conference.

The amount of your compensation is not relevant. When it comes to  FTC disclosure, it doesn’t matter if it is a liptstick or a Lamborghini;  a free lipstick is the same as a car, comped airline ticket or $1000 fee.  In my opinion, to double down on disclosure, if you decide to write a glowing post about the conference, or tweet props to the conference organizers, you should disclose your affiliation, but you don’t need to preface every tweet about the conference content with the hashtag #ad unless you were specifically compensated to promote the conference content.

A note about hashtags in social posts: Never use #spon. It is not at all clear. Use  #ad or #hosted or #sponsor or #sponsored, and don’t bury the hashtag at the end of your social post. I prefer to see them in context if possible or at the very front of the post if not.

Examples:

Having a great time on trip to Mexico #sponsored by #SuperChic.
Rooms at #sponsor #SuperChic are gorgeous. Now off to the spa.
#ad Don’t miss the regional tasting menu at #SuperChic restaurant

Lastly, a word of advice. The FTC guidelines are pretty simple.  Disclosure is required so the consumer of the advertising can put your endorsements in the proper context. It’s common sense — Wouldn’t you want to know if the writer of a glowing blog post about a product you intended to buy was compensated by the company? If it was someone you trusted, you’d still take the advice, but you would want the context of the compensation. The FTC provides guidelines and advice about proper disclosure, and will from time to time go on the record about what it considers inadequate disclosure (like #spon), but it doesn’t dictate a specific way to disclose. When you read articles or blog posts that report that there is a specific, correct way to disclose, take them with the grain of salt. What you are reading is someone’s interpretation of the guidelines cast as an absolute.

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