FTC warns marketers over social media ads

The small print may need to get smaller: the Federal Trade Commission says that even tweeted ads need to abide by the rules and make clear and conspicuous disclosures.

In other words, advertisers can’t make claims that are deceptive or unfair without giving an explanation; and if it’s not possible to do that on a particular platform, then the ad shouldn’t be there in the first place.

The warning comes in an updated version of the FCC’s guidance notes, known as Dot Com Disclosures, which were released in 2000. For the first time, they take into account the expanding use of smartphones with small screens and the rise of social media marketing. 

There is a small sop to advertisers. The 2000 guidance stated that, to help ensure clear and conspicuous disclosures, advertisers should consider their placement and proximity to the relevant ad claim, its prominence, whether audio disclosures are loud enough to be heard, and whether visual disclosures appear for long enough to be noticed.  

The 2000 guidelines defined proximity as ‘near, and when possible, on the same screen’, and stated that advertisers should ‘draw attention to’ disclosures. The new version softens this requirement a little, saying merely that disclosures should be ‘as close as possible’ to the relevant claim.

But using hyperlinks won’t be a way out for many, with the FTC calling on advertisers to avoid using them for disclosures that involve product cost or certain health and safety issues. The new guidelines also say hyperlinks must be labeled as specifically as possible. They also advise marketers to avoid providing disclosures through pop-ups, as they’re often blocked.          

The FTC has little sympathy with advertisers, pointing out rules is rules, whatever the platform, and that ads should be clear in the first place.

“Advertisers spend a lot of time and trouble dealing with disclosures.  Sometimes there may be no way around it. But in many cases, the need for a disclosure is really a warning sign that the underlying ad claim may contain some element of deception,” says the FTC’s Lesley Fair.

“Rather than focusing on fonts, hyperlinks, proximity, platforms, and the whole disclosures rigmarole, how about stepping back and reformulating the ad claim to get rid of the need for a disclosure in the first place?”