Feds issue rules for social media and small screen ads — Twitter and bloggers take note

The Federal Trade Commission issued new guidelines on Tuesday to encourage better disclosures in online ads. The rules, intended to protect consumers from confusion, come at a time when so-called “content marketing” and “native advertising” are soaring in popularity.

The FTC announced the rules in a release stating the agency has updated its 2000 guide, “Dotcom Dislosures,” in order to take account of smaller media screens and the rise of social marketing.

The agency emphasized that traditional disclosure rules, which cover media like radio and television, apply to all forms of the online space as well. These longstanding rules prevent marketers from hiding key terms of an offer and require them to reveal if someone has been paid to endorse a product.

The new FTC report contains 22 examples at the end that illustrate how marketers can fall afoul of the rules in the mobile and social media context. Many of these refer to display ads in which a user must zoom or scroll down to see information that reveals, for instance, that a diamond may not weigh as much as the ad says.

The most intriguing examples, however, include one that appears aimed clearly at Twitter marketers. Although the agency does not cite Twitter by name, it refers to “space constrained ads” and includes pictures that appear near-identical to a Twitter feed:

FTC report Twitter screenshot

The social media guidelines recommend small space advertisers place the word “Ad” before messages or make other obvious disclosures. Twitter itself has long clearly flagged sponsored posts; in reply to an email, a company spokesperson referred to Twitter’s sponsorship policy.

The guidelines also take aim at bloggers who provide information or reviews in exchange for products or services. In one example, the FTC shows a blog post about house paint in which the writer states at the end that she received a free can of paint. According to the agency, such disclosures must be clear and conspicuous and not tucked away after a series of links or other distractions. The new guidelines may affect companies like Microsoft that have paid bloggers to”astroturf” on their behalf.

More generally, the new rules may also be a caution for advocates of “native advertising.” This type of advertising, in which an ad mimics the format of surrounding content, is hardly new but has become a buzzword in recent months as marketers turn to “sponsored posts” and other forms of branded content in the hopes of attracting more attention.