FTC Eyes on Social Promotions

April  24,  2014 / By Carolyn Strum

These days, promotions (e.g. contests and sweepstakes) have become quite commonplace on social media. And why shouldn’t they be? These promotions can be a great way for brands across industries to interact with consumers and drive them to action, from engagement to trial. But earlier this month, the FTC reminded the industry of two things. 1 – They ARE watching. 2 – Social media marketing has some guidelines that must be followed.

In mid-April, a retail brand made headlines when it received a slap on the hand from the FTC for a Pinterest campaign it ran last year. Lucky for this brand, the FTC did not take action or issue fines since this particular situation hadn’t been previously addressed. Brands behind any future infractions will likely not be so lucky.

So, where did this brand go wrong? The campaign was a sweepstakes where consumers could win $1,000 by creating a Pinterest board inspired by the brand’s content. A hashtag was to be included for tracking purposes.

The FTC found the Pinterest campaign failed to comply with the “material connection” principle from the Guides on the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (which guides the FTC’s interpretation of Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibiting unfair and deceptive advertising). The FTC’s Mary Engle told Digiday, this means “Advertisers have to make it clear to the normal consumer that they have to disclose when they’ve compensated or incentivized to endorse a product.”

The main point: disclosure.

Disclosure has been a long-time hot button issue in the industry, most often related to paid spokespeople and influencers that have been somehow compensated. Now, with this action, the FTC extends that guidance to consumers entering a promotion.

The ruling implies having a campaign hashtag isn’t sufficient disclosure, even if it’s clearly associated with the campaign. The best ways to ensure your social promotion is OK in the eyes of the FTC are to require entrants in the promotion’s official rules, and disclose in any call to action, that entrants must:

  • Include text such as “I could win ___” or “contest entry” in submissions
  • Use a hashtag including “contest” or “sweepstakes” in entries

While this specific example pertains to Pinterest, it’s important to take note of how this may or may not apply to other social campaigns. The key here is context. Here are some examples.


  • A Facebook contest or sweepstakes that requires participants to comment on a specific post that is clearly about the contest
  • A contest or sweepstakes that asks participants to submit photos on a microsite dedicated to the specific campaign

No further disclosure should be necessary in these examples because the content submitted lives within the context of the campaign.

Watch out:

  • A Twitter campaign with a chance to win something of value that requires participants to tweet something in order to enter
  • An Instagram campaign with a chance to win something of value that requires participants to post a photo in order to enter

In these scenarios, the previously mentioned phrases or hashtags with clear disclosure must be used by the participants if they’re entering a promotion promoting your brand.

Even in light of this move by the FTC, brands should not fear social campaigns, but rather continue to embrace them. Whether you’re working with a celebrity, an influencer or, now, a consumer the main takeaway is: when in doubt, disclose!

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