On March 12, 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report to address issues presented for disclosures in social, mobile, and other digital channels. The .Com Disclosures report provides updated guidance (the previous report was issued in 2000) and adds further clarification to the FTC’s 2009 Guide to Endorsements and Testimonials.
Like the original, the updated report emphasizes that consumer protection laws apply equally to marketers across all mediums, whether delivered on a desktop computer, a mobile device, or more traditional media such as television, radio, or print. Technological restrictions on space, the design of certain social media tools, or the size of a given advertisement in a small screen or window do not exempt advertisers from making required disclosures and notices on the platforms mentioned above.
What Has Changed?
In many ways, nothing has changed regarding the requirements for disclosures. However, the FTC has offered up much clearer guidance for the inclusion of disclosures in digital marketing channels, in particular respect to social and mobile channels that have emerged since the original report. As before, required disclosures must be “clear and conspicuous” and the report goes as far as saying that “if a particular platform does not provide an opportunity to make clear and conspicuous disclosures, then that platform should not be used to disseminate advertisements that require disclosures.”
Disclosures must also be unavoidable, in close proximity to the claim that requires disclosure, give context to the message, and function as intended across all formats. Furthermore, hyperlinks to disclosure should be “obvious” and explicitly labeled in language that clearly conveys information about the linked page’s content.
What Does This Mean for Marketers?
Marketers selling and promoting goods online should review current practices to ensure that the placement and prominence of required disclosures are sufficient. The FTC also now requires that marketers take into account responsive design for various mobile and alternate device resolutions and limitations (mouse-over does not work in mobile or touchscreen devices).
For marketers promoting or marketing in social and mobile channels, the changes are more pronounced. Some ad-hoc disclosure methods were called into question— in particular #SPON, the use of generic link shorteners and the practice of including an accompanying disclosure in an additional message or tweet. Clear and prominent disclosures that provide unavoidable context must be used moving forward.
Marketers need to review and update their social media policies to implement these guidelines. Note that brands and agencies should have a conversation to ensure that policies and practices are aligned. Doing so can avoid further inquiry and costly investigation by regulators.
Don’t forget that under the FTC’s Guide for Testimonials and Endorsements, reasonable monitoring of disclosures is required. This requirement goes beyond mere social listening and includes monitoring known third parties for the omission of required disclosures and the inclusion of false, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims.
Marketers should not avoid programs simply because of compliance requirements. Process and automation solutions do not need to be onerous or restrictive. With some foresight and planning, programs can be structured, managed, and measured more effectively as a result of applying best practices.
Where Can I Learn More?
The FTC provides businesses with resources, insights, and access to closed investigations and actions at ftc.gov.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has been on the forefront of the issues of disclosure, transparency and ethics in WOMM since 1994. There are a number of resources available at womma.org/ethics and a recently updated Social Media Disclosure Guide can be found at womma.org/sm-disclosure-guide. In addition, WOMMA offers a daily SmartBrief, available at smartbrief.com/news/WOMMA/index.jsp.
For more information on the FTC’s .Com Disclosures report—and to learn the six things that you need to know about disclosure in social, mobile and web—please sign up for our whitepaper here.
Please note in the coming weeks we will be updating WOMMA's Social Media Disclosure Guide and releasing more materials regarding the .Com Disclosures.