The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has put the smack down on Sony and Deutsch LA. This settlement will become a part of history as the commission’s first deceptive advertising investigation into a violation of the Dot Com Disclosures.

In 2012, Deutsch LA created a Twitter campaign for the PlayStation Vita that asked users to tweet about the hand-held gaming device using the hashtag #GameChanger. Seems harmless right? That was until the agency sent out a companywide email encouraging employees to post positive tweets from their personal accounts about the PlayStation Vita. The catch was that they didn’t disclose that PlayStation Vita was a client of their employer – a direct violation of the FTC’s guidelines. Brands have to fully disclose these types of relationships on all marketing materials, regardless of the medium – including social media platforms.

The ease of social media can be deceiving and a seemingly innocent idea can quickly spiral into unethical territory. What Deutsch LA did isn’t all that uncommon of a request from clients, and at McGrath/Power we’ve had to talk through the legal and ethical implications of taking part in these kinds of actions. It may be tempting to try to fast-track a campaign by hopping on the social channel sonic highway, but in the end, a brand is better off earning shares, likes and retweets. It is only through true change and organic word-of-mouth that a brand will be able to make a lasting impact.

The recent settlement between the FTC and Deutsch LA should remind us all of the importance of the Dot Com Disclosures. Unfamiliar with this document? Let me explain.

In 2000, the FTC created the Dot Com Disclosures as a guideline for avoiding consumer deception on mobile and other emerging advertising mediums. The FTC updated the guidelines in 2013 to take into account the expanding use of devices, including smartphones and tablets, as well as the rise of social media platforms – directly impacting marketing, advertising and public relations. Under the updated guidelines, advertisers need to ensure that the disclosure is clear and conspicuous on all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view the advertisement. And this doesn’t just apply to disclosure of advertisements but also in the promotion of clients.

As you probably guessed, Deutsch LA no longer has PlayStation Vita on their roster and probably had to spend a sizable chunk of change on lawyer’s fees battling it out with the FTC. While they are out a client and some cash, the rest of us gain a valuable lesson of how not to follow in their footsteps. It would behoove anyone in public relations, marketing or advertising to read through these guidelines, but if you don’t have time for a 50+ page document, never fear! I’ve done the heavy lifting for you and have outlined some DO’s and DON’Ts so that your brand doesn’t end up in hot water with the FTC.

  • DON’T ask agency employees to post nice things about clients on social media without including a disclosure.
  • DO make sure your disclosure fits within character limits on social media platforms. If your disclosure doesn’t fit into the character limit, you either need to edit the post or re-consider the medium.
  • DON’T make readers search for the disclosure by scrolling, and scrolling and scrolling. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
  • DO tailor your disclosure to the medium. A disclosure on Twitter will likely come through via a hashtag, where as a blog post will likely come right out and state the disclosure.
  • DON’T use jargon in your disclosure.
  • DO be clear and upfront in your disclosure. For example, on Twitter use a hashtag that comes right out and puts the disclosure front and center such as #Client, #Promo, #Ad.
  • DON’T forget about how the message will be consumed. Today, social media content is consumed on tablets, smartphones, PCs and now wearables. Keep this in mind when crafting your disclosure.
  • DO read the FTC Dot Com Disclosures to ensure you are following the rules!

While these takeaways don’t address all of the points within the Dot Com Disclosures, they do give you a good baseline to follow to ensure you aren’t infringing on the disclosure rules.

What do you think about the Dot Com Disclosures? Are they a good thing or a bad thing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.