By Alejandra Butrón
Friend requests, post, updates, texts, pins, followers, “likes” – we live in a world connected through social media. But it’s not only about people connecting to people, it’s also about people connecting with brands, companies, and entire networks.
Liking a product or a service and talking about it online may seem no big deal, but it is more serious than you might think. If done wrong, it can have legal implications for consumers and for companies, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the internet watchdog of the federal government.
#WanderingSole campaign left wondering
A year ago, the American shoe and fashion brand Cole Haan launched its “The Wandering Sole” campaign in which it promised to give $1,000 to the winner of a Pinterest contest. Participants were supposed to create a board on Pinterest named “Wandering Sole” and include five images from Cole Haan’s own Wandering Sole board plus five images of the their favorite places to wander. Plus, contestants had to incorporate the hashtag #WanderingSole in the description of every image. The most creative board was supposed to win the prize.
Nothing wrong so far, right? Well, not for the FTC. Last April, the federal agency issued an official statement in which it ruled that Cole Haan violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act because the brand did not disclose the material connection between them and the contest participants.
For the FTC, the words #WanderingSole were not enough to show that the re-pinned images were part of a contest. The takeaway for other users could have been that their contacts were promoting the company without an ulterior motivation. This way the brand was getting free publicity and much more exposure.
Testimonials and endorsements explained
Testimonials and endorsements are a very serious matter. They make up one of the most powerful forms of word of mouth marketing. But what exactly is an endorsement? The FTC defines it as “any advertising message (…) that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.”
The FTC explains that the definition focuses on the message that consumers may take away and which may help them perform the purchase. If the takeaway is misleading, it will be determined that a practice is deceptive and, therefore, violates the Act.
Full disclosure: how to do it right?
At a 2012 FTC workshop on advertising and privacy disclosures in a digital world, experts on different aspects of social media marketing discussed the hot spots related to endorsements and testimonials.
According to the panelists, disclosures don’t need legal jargon to be clear, effective, and comply with the law. For example, “in line” disclosures use the same voice or style of the blogger or brand to specify the connection with a certain product. This can sound more authentic and there is less risk to lose credibility and/or readers.
Experts agree that it is unlikely that someone reads disclosures and disclaimers if they are separated from the main text, so it is highly recommended to include them in the same page or post. In some cases, companies give bloggers and other endorsers the exact words they should use to disclose the material connection.
For platforms that have character or space restrictions, similar recommendations apply: keep it in-line, simple, and organic. A good option could be the use of hashtags since they communicate a very specific idea. The Worth of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) suggests the use of the hashtags such as #SponsoredMessage, #Ad, #Sponsored, #IWork4Brand or #IWorkWithBrand and format them in bold or italics when possible. Visuals, and other icons could be helpful too, but there is nothing universally applicable.
One of the most recurrent themes of the workshop was that consumers should also be responsible for disclosing any connections every time they re-post a company’s publication. However, the reality is that not many people know that legal concepts like endorsements and testimonials actually exists.
As in any other communication activity, analog or digital, the main ingredient needed would then be responsibility and ethics from everybody involved. Companies and authorities should remember that at the end of the day who they serve are people, and people should make an effort to be aware of what they are offered online and ask themselves if it is really to their benefit.