With the recent spat of FTC crackdowns on Instagram partnerships, a lot of people are wondering how to stay safe when sharing sponsored Instagram posts.
Is using the hashtag #ad enough? What about sponsored Instagram Stories? Do you have to disclose a partnership even if you weren’t paid?
As influencer marketing shows no sign of slowing down on Instagram, it’s more important than ever to know the FTC’s rules.
Not sure you’re doing it right?
We’re covering what you can and can’t do, and how to disclose different types of Instagram partnerships and sponsored Instagram posts:
What is the FTC (And Why Do They Care)?
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has long been aware of the problem of influencers and celebrities failing to disclose sponsored content on their social media channels.
As a consumer protection agency, the FTC is tasked with the prevention of fraudulent or deceptive advertising, and “educating marketers about their responsibilities under truth-in-advertising laws and standards.”
And this includes cracking down on deceptive influencer marketing.
In fact, in 2019, the FTC sent letters to 21 Instagram influencers (including Lindsay Lohan and Naomi Campbell), warning them that publishing sponsored Instagram posts on their personal accounts without “clear and conspicuous disclosure” is a breach of the rules.
And the FTC has recently published a new “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers” guide, with all the important dos and don’ts for influencers to follow.
This means it’s easier than ever for influencers to remain compliant — and on the right side of the FTC.
So, what exactly are the FTC guidelines for influencers?
When Do the FTC’s Rules of Disclosure Apply?
Before we get into the nitty gritty details of disclosure, let’s talk about when and in what cases you have to disclose your sponsorships on Instagram.
Basically, the FTC requires you to disclose when you have any financial, employment, personal, or family relationship with a brand.
This can include everything from being paid and receiving a gift, even if you think your evaluations are unbiased or you weren’t specifically asked to review a product.
Basically, it all comes down to transparency.
It’s about making sure your followers are aware when you’ve been paid or given something of value to promote a product — as opposed to recommending a product because you simply like it.
If your followers can’t tell when you’ve been paid to endorse a product and when you’re simply highlighting a product that you personally like, you’re probably violating the FTC’s guidelines.
Here’s how to follow the rules of FTC disclosure today:
How to Disclose Sponsored Instagram Posts According to the FTC
Whether you’re a brand or agency running an Instagram influencer marketing campaign or an Instagram influencer yourself, it’s important that both parties get on the same page about how to disclose sponsored Instagram posts.
As a brand, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you are FTC compliant — but that’s not to say that influencers aren’t responsible, too. If you’re an Instagram influencer who hasn’t received instructions on how to properly disclose a sponsored Instagram post with the brand, you should always follow the latest FTC recommendations:
#1. Place Your Disclosure So It’s Hard to Miss
The first rule of properly disclosing a sponsored post is to make sure your disclosure is instantly obvious to anyone who engages with your content.
For example, if you’re sharing a sponsored feed post, the disclosure should be clearly visible in the first few lines of the caption — not buried amongst hashtags or hidden behind the “more” button.
On Instagram Stories, it’s important to superimpose the disclosure over a picture or video and make sure viewers have enough time to read it.
For video content, the disclosure should be included in the video itself as well as in the video description. The reason (according to the FTC) is that some viewers may watch without sound and others may not notice superimposed words.
And in a live stream, a disclosure should be repeated periodically, to ensure that late-comers to the stream are also fully informed.
Brand new to the world of Instagram influencer marketing? Don’t worry, we have the perfect (and free!) guide to get you set up!
#2. Use Simple and Clear Language
So now we’ve covered where a disclosure should live, but what actually counts as a fair and clear “disclosure”?
Well, the latest advice from the FTC is that a simple explanation, such as: “Thanks to [insert brand] for the free product,” is often enough.
Equally, you can still use terms like “advertisement,” “ad,” and “sponsored,” so long as they are clearly visible to anyone who engages with your content.
On a space-limited platform like Twitter, the terms “[insert brand] Partner” or “[insert brand] Ambassador” are also approved options. It’s fine to also include a hashtag with the disclosure, such as #ad or #sponsored, but this is not a set requirement.
The main thing is to ensure your disclosure is crystal clear, and isn’t open to any misinterpretation. Stay away from vague or confusing terms like “sp,” “spon,” and “collab,” or stand-alone terms like “thanks” or “ambassador.”
#3. Use the Same Language Throughout
It may seem like a given, but it’s important to note that your disclosure must be in the same language as the endorsement itself.
For example, if a caption about a partner brand is written in German, your disclosure explanation should be in German too.
#4. Don’t Assume a Platform’s Disclosure Tool is Good Enough
Many social platforms, including Instagram, have introduced brand partnership labels for sponsored content.
According to the FTC, however, these built-in tools might not be good enough.
Their advice is to use these tools as well as your own clear and accurate disclosure.
#5. Share Honest Endorsements Only
Last but not least, the FTC has highlighted the importance of giving fair and honest endorsements — even when the partnership is fully disclosed.
For example, you can’t talk about your experience with a product you haven’t tried — and you shouldn’t share a positive review if you actually had a negative experience.
Equally, you should never make up claims about a product that would require proof the advertiser doesn’t have, such as scientific proof that a product can treat a health condition.
FAQ #1: Do You Have to Disclose Gifts or Free Products?
As a brand, gifting your product to Instagram influencers is a great strategy to build brand awareness on Instagram and grow your following.
A lot of people assume that if no money is exchanging hands, it doesn’t qualify as a partnership or sponsored Instagram post. But this assumption is actually incorrect.
According to the FTC, if a business gives you a free product with the expectation that you’ll promote or discuss the product on Instagram, you have to disclose it.
But what about mentioning or promoting a product that you got for free by some other means?
For example, if a store gives out free samples to its customers. Must you disclose then?
The FTC is only concerned about endorsements that are made on behalf of a sponsoring advertiser. If you have no business relationship with the product or brand that you’re promoting, you don’t have to disclose.
FAQ #2: Does Tagging a Brand in Your Photo Count as An Endorsement?
It might sound like an overreach, but if you tag a business in an Instagram post and you have a relationship with that business, the FTC considers this an endorsement — even if the post itself isn’t sponsored.
In other words, if you post a photo of yourself to Instagram and you tag the clothing brand that you’re wearing, and you have a relationship with that brand, you must disclose that relationship in the caption of your post.
This rule may apply even if you used to have a relationship with the business you tag!
For example, if a clothing company gives you a free pair of jeans to endorse in a post in December, and then you share another post with the jeans and tag the clothing company in March, even if you no longer have a relationship with that business, you may still have to disclose your brand relationship.
The reason the FTC gives for this is that your followers may not have seen the original post where you said you got the product free from the manufacturer.
FAQ #3: How Should You Disclose Sponsored Instagram Stories?
“Mail day” or “unboxing” videos are a common theme in Instagram Stories, Snapchat stories, and YouTube videos, because (for some reason!) people really love to see the free products that other people receive. And it’s not just adults, unboxing videos of kids opening toys are huge too!
This content is a win-win for influencers and brands: influencers can easily showcase and give shout-outs to brands, and brands can grow their following and brand awareness.
But many people don’t know that the FTC’s rules apply to these videos, too.
So, what are the rules for disclosing free product or partnerships on Instagram Stories?
According to the FTC, a prominent, superimposed disclosure has to be included in all Instagram Stories where a brand relationship exists.
The disclosure should be easy to notice and readable within the timeframe (or length) of your story. And like with Instagram hashtags, your disclosures on Instagram Stories can’t be hidden among other text.
The FTC also notes that because many Instagram users watch stories with the sound turned off, a verbal-only disclosure may not be enough.
An easy way to disclose in your Instagram Stories is to just write “Ad” or the #ad hashtag somewhere in your story, or to disclose in a written way that you’re going to show off some of the free gifts you’ve received. It’s not enough to just assume that people know they’re given for free, even if you think it’s super obvious.
FAQ #4: Is Instagram’s Paid Partnership Feature FTC Compliant?
Instagram recently introduced a new paid partnership feature to help users distinguish between sponsored and unsponsored Instagram posts.
This feature is available for both Instagram posts and Instagram Stories, with the option to tag a business partner in the “Advanced Settings” page of a post:
Brands will have to manually approve paid partnership posts by default, however there is the option for brands to deactivate this via their account settings settings:
While the feature is certainly a step in the right direction for creating more transparency, according to the FTC, built-in platform disclosures like Instagram’s don’t always meet their requirements for clear and conspicuous disclosure.
Specifically, the FTC says: “Don’t assume that a platform’s disclosure tool is good enough, but consider using it in addition to your own, good disclosure”.
So, in other words, while it isn’t a bad idea to use Instagram’s new feature, you probably should still disclose your partnerships in the caption of your post.
An Overview of the FTC’s Endorsement Guides
We know — it’s a lot of information to take in!
If you want to read the entirety of the FTC’s new guide, you can find it here. But if you’re low on time, here’s an overview of the important points:
1. You should always disclose when you have a financial (including payment, discounts, perks, and gifting), employment, personal, or family relationship with a brand your talking about online.
2. A simple explanation, such as: “Thanks to [insert brand] for the free product,” is often enough to constitute good disclosure — as long as it is clearly visible alongside the endorsement.
3. Using terms like “advertisement,” “ad,” and “sponsored,” is also acceptable, as long as they are clearly visible to anyone who engages with your content.
4. On a space-limited platform like Twitter, the terms “[insert brand] Partner” or “[insert brand] Ambassador” are also approved options.
5. Tagging a business in a photo on Instagram is considered endorsement if you have (or had) a relationship” with that brand. In such cases, you must disclose the partnership in the caption.
6. A prominent, superimposed disclosure has to be included in all sponsored Instagram Stories.
7. If you have no business relationship with a product or business that you’re promoting, you don’t have to disclose.
8. When promoting sponsored content on Instagram that originated on another channel (such as your blog), you must disclose the partnership in both locations.
9. Built-in platform disclosures like Instagram’s paid partnership feature don’t always meet the FTC’s requirements. It’s best to disclose in the caption as well.
While influencer-driven marketing is one of the best ways to reach targeted audiences on Instagram, it’s important for both influencers and businesses to disclose these kinds of partnerships and sponsored Instagram posts. Make sure to keep up-to-date on the FTC’s guides, and when in doubt, disclose!
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