The FTC Is Keeping A Close Eye On Influencers

If you think the Federal Trade Commission isn't monitoring TikTok and Instagram, think again.

Social media influencers and their effect on our food purchases have been scrutinized for years now. Since influencing isn't exactly a strictly regulated industry, the heavy hitters on Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms don't always feel the need to disclose whether they've been paid to post certain content (though others are generally transparent). But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is keeping an eye on social media, and it's starting to warn influencers that the bare minimum in disclosing their sponsorships isn't going to be enough going forward.

The FTC vs. TikTok and Instagram food influencers

The FTC recently issued a warning to two trade associations, the American Beverage Association (AmeriBev) and The Canadian Sugar Institute, along with 12 registered dietitians and online health influencers regarding their positive messaging around the safety of the safety of aspartame, the artificial sweetener that was recently categorized as "possibly carcinogenic" by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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The letters sent to AmeriBev and the Canadian Sugar Institute reprimanded both organizations for using influencer clout to promote their interests without disclosing the clear fact that they were sponsors behind the influencer videos. The 12 influencers who were identified as being sponsored by either organization received letters noting that they did not sufficiently make clear the fact that they received money to post positive messaging around aspartame.

These letters aren't an indication that the FTC is taking immediate legal action against the influencers or trade associations. Instead, it's meant to serve as a warning about engaging in deceptive advertising. The letters are all viewable on the FTC's website; the individual influencers involved are Valerie Agyeman, Nichole Andrews, Leslie Bonci, Keri Gans, Stephanie Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, Andrea Miller, Idrees Mughal, Adam Pecoraro, Mary Ellen Phipps, Jenn Messina, and Lindsay Pleskot.

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Using the FTC's letter to registered dietician Cara Harbstreet as just one example, the agency details multiple instances in which she "did not include any disclosures in the videos themselves" and that the disclosures she included in the captions of the posts were not sufficiently "clear and conspicuous."

Harbstreet did convey she was paid for these posts by using the hashtag "sponsored" in the caption section of TikTok and Instagram, but because "the description is in small print, at the bottom of the screen, sometimes poorly contrasting, and doesn't stand out," the FTC considers this inadequate.

The FTC also points out that although Harbstreet subtly disclosed she was paid, she failed to disclose who sponsored the videos about aspartame, which means that "viewers might not be able to adequately evaluate the weight and credibility to give [Harbstreet's] endorsement."

In the end, the letter requests that Harbstreet "review [her] Instagram, TikTok, and other social media posts as to whether they contain sufficiently clear and conspicuous disclosures of any material connections." It concludes that any continued violations could eventually result in legal action, including a federal district court injunction or an official cease and desist order. All the letters contained similar instruction and explanation of potential penalties.

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So nobody's gotten in any actual trouble—yet. But knowing just how big TikTok has become as an information platform, it's easy to see how influencers might eventually find themselves slapped with a cease and desist order.

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