The Federal Trade Commission recently went after 47 celebrities and brands for violating its rules on sponsored Instagrams. But many of them weren’t even actually ads.
We tend to think of Instagram ads as those really obvious ones for diet teas or teeth whiteners. But this list shows there’s a much broader definition of an ad, at least according to the FTC, which considers any “material relationship” with a product to be an ad.
This could be that you are getting paid to post it, or that you got free merch, or that you’re a part owner of a brand or have some other financial stake. There's a lot of gray area.
In its announcement about the letters, the FTC acknowledged that it had not fact-checked the ads in question. “The staff’s letters were sent in response to a sample of Instagram posts making endorsements or referencing brands,” the commission wrote. “In sending the letters, the staff did not predetermine in every instance whether the brand mention was in fact sponsored, as opposed to an organic mention.”
BuzzFeed News attempted to fact-check these by reaching out to the brands to ask if the celebrity was paid or got a freebie. What we found is that there were lots of different kinds of ads — sometimes the celeb was part owner of a brand or got free stuff. Or maybe it was an ad, but they didn't disclose it the right way — either they made no attempt to disclose it at all, or they tried but didn't get it quite right.
This just goes to show that if the FTC can't tell from looking at an Instagram post if something is an ad or not — and when a media outlet called up the brand to ask, we still couldn't find an answer — how the heck are normal people supposed to know when something is an ad??