Per the report, the American Beverage Association and the Canadian Sugar Institute paid health and diet influencers on TikTok and Instagram to post content reassuring their followers that aspartame is safe following a report from the World Health Organization earlier this year suggesting more research needs to be done into whether the artificial sweetener could be linked to an increased risk of cancer.
The problem, according to the FTC, is that a number of these influencers either didn’t disclose their relationship to either of these organizations in the corresponding post, or didn’t do so in a way that fit current FTC endorsement guidelines.
“It’s irresponsible for any trade group to hire influencers to tout its members’ products and fail to ensure that the influencers come clean about that relationship,” Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “That’s certainly true for health and safety claims about sugar and aspartame, especially when made by registered dieticians and others upon whom people rely for advice about what to eat and drink.”
The influencers who received letters notifying them of the issue include Valerie Agyeman, Nichole Andrews, Leslie Bonci, Keri Gans, Stephanie Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, Andrea Miller, Idrees Mughal, Adam Pecoraro, Mary Ellen Phipps, Jenn Messina, and Lindsay Pleskot. Both the American Beverage Association and the Canadian Sugar Institute similarly received warnings about their social media advertising practices.
What does this mean for creators?
Adequate disclosure of relationships that could impact the credibility of an endorsement is imperative, both ethically and to avoid serious penalties that could impact a creator’s livelihood. In their letters to the influencers mentioned above, the FTC warned that they could incur civil penalties of up to $50,120 per future violation.
There’s nothing to suggest the influencers were actively attempting to hide their connection to the trade groups that paid them, but making a mistake won’t necessarily let you off the hook if the FTC comes knocking. So, what should you do to ensure you’re in compliance with the rules?
1. Study the guidelines.
The FTC updated its guidelines for endorsements in mid-2023, conscious of the way social media has shifted the landscape. Going straight to the source for information is the best way to ensure you follow the rules.
2. Understand which relationships require disclosure.
“Material connections could consist of a business or family relationship, monetary payment, or the provision of free products to the endorser,” one of the letters from the FTC warns. In other words, it’s not just paid brand deals that could land creators in hot water.
3. For every method of advertising, add a disclosure.
One of the major points made by the FTC was that disclosures need to be very easily spotted by the consumer. Instagram and TikTok captions aren’t always easy to read, and parts of them may be hidden until the viewer clicks to read more. That won’t cut it.
“If the representation is made through both visual and audible means, the disclosure should be made in the communication’s visual and audible portions,” the FTC said.
If you promote the product visually, add a text overlay. If you speak about it, mention your connection verbally.
4. Make sure your disclosure is thorough.
As the last point suggests, adding a #sponsored or #ad hashtag isn’t enough, nor is checking off any option on your social media platform of choice noting that something is a paid promotion. These things should still be done, but you also need to clearly disclose the name of the company paying for the promotion.
5. Err on the side of caution.
When in doubt, it’s better to lean towards more disclosure rather than risk it being inadequate. Brand deals, paid promotions, and the like are all a regular part of influencer life. Viewers have come to expect it. Don’t approach disclosures as something to hope you can slip past your audience—if you’re that concerned about a paid promotion having a negative impact on your brand, it’s time to reconsider the partnership anyway.
It’s also worth noting that most of the influencers contacted by the FTC over their endorsement of aspartame don’t have huge followings. Some have a couple hundred thousand followers, but others have tens of thousands on the relevant accounts, or even less. Don’t anticipate being able to fly under the radar if you aren’t getting millions of views. It isn’t worth the risk.