Which isn't just a list of unlawful behaviors, but in social media alone, a booming industry.
Reality-TV figures, YouTube stars, recording artists and others with huge followings among Millennials use their social media platforms as paid shills for brands, without disclosing the quid pro quo. This is not a matter of a few isolated bad actors. An investigation by the public interest group Public Citizen uncovered 117 such influencers, among them Rihanna, One Direction, Victoria Justice and, course, pop culture's prima niente, Kim Kardashian.
In a scalding, scolding letter to the FTC, Public Citizen reminded the regulators of why they exist.
A longstanding, core principal of fair advertising law in the United States is that people have a right to know when they are being advertised to. With that knowledge, consumers can hopefully apply the appropriate emotional and intellectual filters to advertisements, discounting puffery and claims of authenticity. By contrast, disguised advertisements are inherently deceptive, because consumers do not know to apply appropriate screens. The issue is acute with disguised ads featuring paid endorsements, where deceived consumers believe admired celebrities are making genuine, self-directed and enthusiastic endorsements of brands, not realizing that those celebrities are instead paid and may not even use the touted brand.
Imagine that. Fronting a product they don't even use. Now, in a 30-second spot or a magazine ad, the transaction behind the endorsement may be blindingly obvious, but amid the vast wasteland that is a celebrity Instagram account, it may well look like the real deal. It may look like Real House of someplace or other Meghan King Edmonds just really loves 310Nutrition shakes that she was spontaneously moved to tell the world about it. (And if you believe that I have a Twitter “business model” to sell you.)
But here's the thing: the FTC did not ball up Public Citizen's letter and chuck it in the can. Despite the fact that the current administration is at war with regulation and wants corporations to have their way, unfettered, to remain “competitive” at your risk and expense, the agency last week put 90 influencers on notice.
The stakes are high. As explained on this site by MediaPost's very own Gavin O’Malley, the sponsored posts will be a $1 billion business on Instagram alone in 2017 and “the number of brand-sponsored influencer posts on Instagram is on track to more than double from 14.5 million this year, to 32.3 million, in 2019.
“That poses a problem for Instagram, because many users essentially see sponsored posts as a form of spam.”
Spam, of course, is unsolicited email and maybe the greatest neologism of the digital era. It perfectly analogizes unwanted email to the reconstituted, pork-shoulder-based canned meatlike product that can if you squint look like ham and taste somewhat hammy but sure as hell isn't ham.
In the case of Instagram and other undisclosed or insufficiently disclosed social media brand endorsements, though, I think the spam label isn't quite right. The right analogy is: escort service.
In the original sense. Not call girls, per se, but attractive women who will be arm candy for an evening, showing all the world how endlessly fascinated she is with her “date” for as many hours as he's rented rented her adoring glances and cleavage. Needless to say, neither half of the couple discloses to onlookers that it's a pricey sham.
Of course, undisclosed Instagram deals are worse, because unlike the schmuck with the escort, 310Nutrition may actually dupe other schmucks into getting out their wallets. So if you've ever wondered what, say, the Kardashians actually do, well now you know. They preen for money. What precisely that makes them is for you, and the FTC, to judge.