Tag Archives: online advertising

Are Your Social Media Brand Endorsements and Sponsored Ads FTC Compliant? A Guide for Proper Disclosures

by Jason W. Brooks

Endorsements from a celebrity and/or social media influencer are an important tool used by advertisers to build a brand’s image and persuade consumers. Moreover, it’s understandable that any brand ambassador would like to preserve an “organic” feel when conveying their messages. But the law, governed and enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) under the FTC ACT (15 U.S.C. §§ 41-58, as amended), states that “endorsements must be truthful and not misleading.” FTC relies on its recently updated Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (the “Guides”, as set forth in 16 CFR Part 255) to ensure that consumer products and services are described truthfully online, and that consumers understand what they are paying for. The Guides represent administrative interpretations of laws enforced by the FTC, and therefore failure to adhere to the voluntary compliance requirements set forth therein, may result in law enforcement actions for violations of the FTC Act.

The Guides themselves are not regulations, and so there are no civil penalties associated with them. But if advertisers don’t follow the Guides, the FTC may decide to investigate whether the practices are unfair or deceptive under the FTC Act, and may take corrective action under Section 5 of the FTC Act (15 U.S.C. 45). The following then, shall serve to advise regarding the basic legal requirements you must follow when making sponsored endorsements of any product, service or brand on any of your social media platform.

In short, in order to comply with the FTC, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose your material relationship with any brand which you are endorsing via your social media. The following will provide some guidance as to how and when you should disclose, but as a general rule of thumb, “when in doubt, disclose.

What Is An Endorsement?

According to the FTC, an endorsement means “any advertising message that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser, even if the views expressed by that party are identical to those of the sponsoring advertiser.” Thus, in order to be FTC compliant as the endorser of any brand’s product or service, you must ensure the following with respect to any of your endorsements:

  1. The endorsement must reflect your honest opinion, belief, finding, or experience with respect to the product or service you are endorsing; and
  2. You must have been a bona-fide user of the endorsed product or service at the time you made your endorsement.

[For example, you would not be permitted to tweet about how delicious you believe a particular beverage tastes, if (a) you’ve never actually tried that beverage, or (b) you don’t honestly believe the beverage is delicious].

Material Connections Must Be Disclosed.

In addition to the foregoing requirements, when there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product or service that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement, that connection must be fully disclosed. In other words, your endorsement of any product or service is subject to enforcement if the brand/advertiser, or someone working for the brand/advertiser, pays you or gives you something of value or provides some other incentive to mention their product on any of your social media.

Required Disclosures Must Be Clear and Conspicuous.

The hard and fast rule is, material relationships between brand and endorser on social media must be clearly and conspicuously disclosed. The FTC has provided specific guidance as to how to address these disclosures on various social media platforms, as follows:

  1. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: While there are no specific rules as to how the disclosure needs to be stated, the FTC has taken a firm stance that the limited 140-character space available on Twitter does not change the need to disclose in an endorsement tweet. According to the FTC, “the words ‘Sponsored’ and ‘Promotion’ use only 9 characters; ‘Paid ad’ only uses 7 characters; and starting a tweet with ‘Ad:’ or ‘#ad’ takes only 3 characters” – each of these would likely be effective disclosures, per the Guides. Also note that the disclosure must be made on each and every tweet you make, even if you are tweeting the same message consecutively (i.e. minutes or even seconds apart) or if the tweet is broken up into several parts. The same rules apply to Facebook and Instagram posts, with the caveat that, because you are not limited in space on these alternative platforms, you should err on the side of making your disclosure longer and more obvious, rather than falling back on the same abbreviated text that would be appropriate for Twitter.
  1. Contests & Sweepstakes Rules Need Disclosure: If you are promoting/sponsoring a contest on behalf of a brand, a disclosure is also required. Moreover, the responsibility falls on you (e.g. the contest sponsor) to make sure people entering the contest make the disclosure themselves if the contest requires them to review or promote a product/service. Again, the key is whether the gift would affect the “weight or credibility” of an endorsement, but determining where to set the bar is difficult, so it’s always safer to disclose. For example, if you, as a brand ambassador, are calling upon your social media followers to tweet about, or make an online review of the brand, in exchange for some type of gift or reward, then your call to action must also require that your followers disclose the contest/sweepstakes. Displaying a hashtag like “#contest” or “#sweepstakes” should be sufficient as a disclosure; however, using something like “#BrandXYZ_Rocks” or merely the abbreviated “#sweeps” is not sufficient because the relationship is not deemed obvious enough and people might not understand what the disclosure means.
  1. Video Disclosures Must Be Made Early And Often: For any YouTube or other sponsored online video (e.g. Snapchat, Vine, etc.), it’s not enough to have a disclaimer on the details page. The FTC has stressed that proximity and placement are two determinative factors as to the conspicuousness of the disclosure. Therefore, your disclosure must be made at the beginning of the video and preferably repeated multiple times for longer-form pieces. Similarly, streaming video, such as Periscope or when making a video/mobile game review as a sponsor/ambassador of a gaming company, also needs disclosure throughout the video. As an example, stating throughout your videos or live streams language such as, “Sponsored by [name of the company],” would be sufficient as a disclosure.
  1. Facebook “Likes” Might Require Disclosure: The FTC has not clearly addressed this specific issue yet, however, you should still stick to the same general rule of clearly disclosing if you are acting as a brand ambassador/sponsor to incentivize your followers to “Like” a brand on Facebook. It should be noted however that the FTC is unequivocally against the practice of “fake likes.”

Conclusion.

In summary, whenever you are acting as a Brand Ambassador or Sponsor of any product or service, you must ensure that people get the information they need to evaluate your sponsored statements. If you were given something for free or paid to promote a product or service, clearly state so. You should use clear and unambiguous language and make the disclosure stand out. Consumers (i.e. your social media followers) should be able to notice the disclosure easily and should not have to look for it. And finally, if your disclosures are hard to find, tough to understand, fleeting, or buried in unrelated details, or if other elements in your ad or message obscure or distract from the disclosures, they don’t meet the “clear and conspicuous” standard and you could find yourself the subject of an action from the FTC.

Jason W. Brooks, Esq. is an entertainment attorney and a founding partner of altView Law Group, LLP. Jason specializes in transactional business and legal affairs matters, particularly in the areas of New Media and TV production. Feel free to contact Jason via email: Jason@altviewlawgroup.com or follow him on Twitter: @Jasonbrookslaw.

Disclaimer: The information in this post is intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Entertainment Law, Internet Law, New Media

How Brands Use Trademark Law to Gain Competitive Advantage Online

by David N. Sharifi

There is a virtual war taking place in the realm of online marketing – one fueled by search queries, big data, and unprecedented levels of interactive brand engagement.  But the theater for this war is not storefronts, print ads, and billboards – it is Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, mobile app stores, and many other digital platforms where consumers find their favorite brands, and advertisers hunt shoppers.

Today’s brands use a variety of creative and technical tools to identify themselves on the web, and to target, speak to, and “connect with” their loyalists online.  In cases where these digital tools – typically consisting of product names, company names, slogans, domain names, QR Codes, social media handles, search keywords, and hashtags (collectively “Digital Marketing Insignia”) – fall under trademark subject matter, brand owners can control valuable digital real estate through trademark protection and gain competitive advantage on the web.

Trademark Infringement in Digital and Social Marketing

Trademarks provide the exclusive right to promote goods and services under distinguishable words, phrases, symbols, designs or a combination thereof.  Rooted in consumer protection law, a trademark is legally a source identifier, a shortcut that communicates the source of the goods and services being promoted.  In some cases Digital Marketing Insignia such as domain names, hashtags, or even stylized QR codes contain trademark subject matter, and that’s when trademark protection is a useful weapon to help monopolize key areas on the web when a consumer is searching or shopping online.

To bring a prima facie trademark infringement case, a plaintiff must prove:

  • Ownership of a valid trademark;
  • Priority;
  • Use in commerce in connection with the sale of goods or services; and
  • Likelihood of consumer confusion.

When brands use Digital Marketing Insignia to promote their products online, trademark law can help protect valuable digital real estate where competitors may piggyback on famous marks. Vigilant trademark monitoring and enforcement can help defend against these unfair and often illegal practices.

As an example, consider one of the most famous trademarks of McDonald’s Corporation, U.S. Registration No. 2035587  for BIG MAC filed under “sandwiches for consumption on or off premises” in international class 030.  As owner of the BIG MAC trademark,  McDonald’s Corp. may choose to promote its famous sandwich on the web at http://www.bigmac.com, or at  facebook.com/bigmac, or under the social media handle @bigmac (Instagram and Twitter), or in search results under Google keyword: Big Mac, or in social media search results under hashtag: Big Mac (#bigmac).

Trademark Enforcement Online

If a competing restaurant promotes its products when a user searches the web for “Big Mac,” or if a competitor hosts a twitter party under #BigMacSucks (yes there is such a thing as twitter parties), or sets up a website under the domain name http://www.BigMacSale.com, do any of these uses of Digital Marketing Insignia constitute trademark infringement?  The answer depends on whether the brand owner can prove the four elements of trademark infringement (above).  Many courts have ruled, for example, that keyword triggering fulfills the use in commerce requirement of trademark infringement, and if the other elements can be proven (such as likelihood of consumer confusion), then infringement exists. (See Buying for the Home v. Humble Abode, 459 F. Supp 2d 310 (D.N.J. Oct. 20, 2006), Edina Realty v. The MLSonline.com, 2006 WL 737064 (D. Minn. Mar. 20, 2006), Hearts on Fire Co. v. Blue Nile, Inc. 2009 WL 794482 (D. Mass., March 2009)).  Other courts have ruled to the contrary. (See Site Pro-1 v. Better Metal, 506 F. Supp 2d 123 (E.D.N.Y. May 9, 2007), and Tiffany v. eBay, 2008 WL 27557897 (S.D.N.Y. July 14, 2008)).

Therefore, at least in the area of keyword triggering, there is room for trademark enforcement, although the issue is far from settled.  From a practical standpoint, brand owners may have leverage to enforce trademark rights through a cease and desist letter and settlement agreement, avoiding costly litigation in a legal area that is currently unpredictable.  And aggressive marketers may be amenable to limiting their use of competitors’ trademarks in Digital Marketing Insignia, rather than defending their positions in costly litigation which may swing either way.  Presumably, the use of hashtags containing protected trademarks triggers a similar analysis to keyword search issues, which have been heavily litigated.  In addition, courts have long settled the issue of use of domain names containing protected trademarks in cybersquatting cases and the enactment of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) in the late 1990s.

Owners of registered trademarks can also work directly with websites that host infringing content.  Most popular online platforms from Google and Bing, to Twitter and YouTube, to Etsy and Amazon, have copyright and trademark complaint policies available for brand owners to pursue a take down action.  Brand owners have these options to force competitors to comply, but trademark ownership and registration is usually a necessary requisite.

Trademarks Provide Competitive Advantage Online

Today’s brands, whether on the cusp of launching their first assault, or fully engaged in the trenches of competitive warfare online, can use trademark law not only to police their marks in traditional ways, but also to monopolize an assortment of Digital Marketing Insignia and dominate the online real estate where consumers shop and engage with products.  Without having strategic trademark protection and enforcement as a major part of a marketer’s arsenal, a brand online would be fighting a losing battle.

David N. Sharifi is a Los Angeles based intellectual property and business attorney concentrating in digital media and advertising, trademarks law, startups and mobile publishing.  A version of this piece first appeared on David’s blog, The LA Tech & Media Law Blog

Leave a comment

Filed under Internet Law, Trademarks