On March 12, 2013, the Federal Trade Commissions released a new set of guidelines applicable to advertising undertaken by online businesses and affiliates. The rules are proving to be a bit of a shock for many affiliates, particularly their application to marketing efforts on Twitter.
FTC Wants The Truth
The Federal Trade Commission [“FTC”] is charged with protecting consumers in the marketplace. To do this, the FTC more or less assumes you, the affiliate, are up to something sneaky and then creates rules designed to put an end to your sneakiness. To this end, the first rule of marketing is any claim you make in advertising must be true and it must be backed up by objective evidence. Let’s look at an example.
If you have a television, you have undoubtedly seen the Subway advertisements featuring Jared. If you haven’t, Jared was once obese. The commercials suggest he lost all the excess weight by subsisting entirely on a diet of sandwiches from Subway.
This is, of course, not the case at all. While Jared did eat primarily at Subway, he also walked for significant amounts of time each day. What do you know – exercise and diet to lose weight!
How then does Subway get away with suggesting Jared lost weight primarily by eating only sandwiches? The company includes a text disclaimer in its advertisements and commercials indicating Jared’s results are not typical and one has to exercise as part of a weight loss plan. Next time you see one of the ads, look for text to flash up on the screen stating as much.
You Can’t Handle The Truth!
What does any of this have to do with your marketing on Twitter? In the new guidelines, the FTC makes it clear it expects marketers to tell the truth in tweets. If a disclaimer is needed for a statement in a tweet, the FTC also wants it to be addressed in that tweet.
All of this in 140 characters.
So, what are you required to include in your marketing tweets? The first step is to include “Ad:” at the beginning of the tweet. This apparently alerts readers to the fact the tweet is an advertising piece. A sample tweet complying with this rule would read:
“Ad: Had Subway 6 inch for breakfast. For lunch. For dinner. Can’t eat another. Gunna puke. Perhaps why I’ve lost 30 pounds in 6 weeks.”
Many online publications are reporting this is all you need to do to comply with the new rules. They are wrong. The FTC requires a second step. You must also determine whether the tweet needs a disclaimer to keep it from being misleading.
In our Jared tweet example, the obvious issue is whether most people will lose 30 pounds in 6 weeks? Most diets produce one to two pounds of weight loss a week, so the answer is no. Thus, our tweet needs a disclaimer. Now it should read:
“Ad: Subway 6″ for brkfst. 4 lunch. 4 dinner. Can’t eat another. Please shoot me. I’ve lost 30 pounds in 6 weeks. **Typical weight loss 1-2lbs a week.”
The FTC loves this tweet because it contains advertisement and disclaimer information. We’ve now protected the least intelligent people on the web from the horrors of marketing. Thank God.
What if you cannot fit your disclaimer into the tweet? If the disclaimer covers a nominal issue, you can link to a page where it is prominently displayed. If the disclaim covers something inherent in the claim, the FTC offers a new and novel bit of advice – don’t tweet the message. Yes, the guidelines really include this advice, which should tell you everything you need to know about the hostility of the FTC towards affiliates and businesses.
As you might pick up from the tone of this post, I am not much of a fan of the FTC. The Agency is typically five years behind the times on the web. When it does try to catch up, it ends up issuing rules and regulations that make little sense. These new guidelines represent a perfect example of such an effort.
Unfortunately, affiliates and online businesses must comply with these new guidelines. Consult with your legal counsel to make sure your tweeting practices and other online efforts are in compliance. The FTC issues penalties starting at $16,000 per tweet and the rules are already in place, so get moving.