The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued updates on June 29, 2023 to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (“Endorsement Guides”) and updated its practical business guidance “FTC’s Endorsement Guides: What People are Asking” (“Business Guidance”). Last updated in 2009, the final revisions to the Endorsement Guides feature several key additions addressing technological changes in how advertising is conducted, and advertisers’ increased reliance on online reviews, social media, and influencer endorsements. The Endorsement Guides provide guidance to businesses and others to ensure that advertising using endorsements or testimonials is truthful. Advertisers that deceive consumers via endorsements or testimonials may violate the FTC Act.
With its revisions, the final, updated Endorsement Guides provide the addition of new examples while sticking to the general bellwether that endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser and that advertisers are subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated statements made through endorsements or for failing to disclose unexpected material connections between themselves and their endorser.
Notable updates to the Endorsement Guides include the following:
- Creating a new principle about procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, publishing, upvoting, downvoting, or editing consumer reviews so as to not misrepresent what consumers think of their products to the benefit of advertisers.
- Addressing incentivized reviews, reviews by employees, and fake negative reviews of a competitor.
- Establishing a new definition of “clear and conspicuous” and clarification that an advertiser may not simply rely on a social media platform’s built-in disclosure tool, if the disclosure provided by that tool is not “clear and conspicuous.” A disclosure is clear and conspicuous if it “is difficult to miss (i.e., easily noticeable) and easily understandable by ordinary consumers”.
- Presenting to what extent “Endorsement” includes fake reviews, virtual influencers, and tags in social media. Verbal statements, tags in social media posts, demonstrations, depictions of the name, signature, likeness or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual, and the name or seal of an organization can be endorsements. An “endorser” could be or appear to be an individual, group, or institution.
- Setting out the potential liability of advertisers, endorsers, and intermediaries by reaffirming the “knew or should have known” standard when evaluating any liabilities. Advertising agencies, PR firms, and similar intermediaries may be liable for their roles in creating or disseminating endorsements containing representations that they know or should know are deceptive.
- Commenting that disclosure of “material connections” include, but are not limited to, the provision of free or discounted products or the possibility of winning a prize, of being paid, or earning money through affiliate links.
- Clarifying FTC attorneys POV on brands and contracted agencies’ monitoring obligations when running an influencer campaign.
- Establishing increased scrutiny on any claimed “independent” review sites.
- Making clear that endorsements directed to children are of special concern.
As a general rule, the Endorsement Guides make clear that advertisers are not strictly liable for endorsements or reviews authored by consumers where there does not exist a material connection. However, an advertiser disseminating, featuring, highlighting, re-posting, re-tweeting, sharing or integrating such consumer endorsements or reviews into its promotional activities changes the characteristic thereof and advertisers will be required to ensure, without limitation, that all express and implied representations are not misleading, capable of being appropriately substantiated prior to dissemination, and include appropriate and unavoidable disclosures.
The 4A’s commented that it was pleased to see that the FTC responded to some key issues their written comments to the FTC about the draft Endorsement Guides from September 2022, including the need to acknowledge that advertising agencies cannot be responsible for monitoring influencer relationships indefinitely. The FTC expects brands and agencies to monitor influencers “during the length of the contract and for a reasonable time, such as a few months, after the contract expires.” For influencers receiving free products in exchange for promotion, “it would probably be reasonable to monitor endorsers for at least a few months.” According to the FTC, “there is no set time period that makes sense for all circumstances, and depending on the facts, [and advertiser] may be responsible for a post even after a few months.”
The FTC also issued an updated version of a guidance document that answers Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about endorsements. Primarily addressing when and how to disclose material connections, the FAQ section was last revised in 2017 includes 40 additional questions and updates dozens of other answers. It adds specific guidance for influencers on when and how to disclose material connections across different kinds of platforms, and it gives FTC staff’s views about brand monitoring of influencers and platform disclosure tools. The changes, in part, follow recent enforcement actions, Civil Investigative Demand investigations, warning letters and agency business guidance. The new version also includes more guidance relating to online reviews, addressing issues such as incentives and treatment of negative feedback.
For questions or further information about new changes to the FTC Endorsement Guides, please contact Jim Potter, CHC Executive Director, at jpotter@cohealthcom.