By: Hayley Grossbauer
Social media has permanently changed the field of Public Relations. Not only has it just arisen in the 21st century, but it is constantly evolving, with new platforms coming out all the time. This challenges us in the field of public relations to keep up with these trends and to utilize them to our advantage. One of the ways PR professionals have done that is through the use of sponsorships with celebrities and influencers. However, there are some blurred lines when it comes to the ethics of sponsored posts. In this day and age, it is important that we start to set guidelines in order to not mislead consumers. It is common to see hashtags alluding to sponsorship, like “#ad” or “#spon,” at the end of a sponsored post, but is that the correct form of disclosure? What are the guidelines surrounding this, if there are any?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests that influencers should disclose a relationship with a brand when they are receiving monetary compensation or even products for free. It suggests that hashtags alluding to endorsement are not a quality way to show a sponsorship or brand deal, and influencers should instead treat sponsorship tags like any other brand deal. TruthInSponsorship.org, an organization dedicated to fighting against deceptive advertising, says that an influencer needs to disclose their financial, employment, personal, or family relationship with a brand whenever they express their opinion on said brand, regardless of whether they were paid, gifted, given a discount, etc. Influencers have a responsibility to their audience to provide truthful information. According to an article for Vanity Fair from 2017, around 90 celebrities received letters from the FTC as cease and desists for lack of disclosure on sponsored media, including Kim Kardashian, Anne Hathway, and Gigi Hadid. Celebrities are known for receiving thousands of dollars per sponsored post, so it is important that they follow ethical guidelines set by the FTC for full disclosure to audiences. The FTC did not plan to take legal action, but they do have the power to in the future.
One area of PR that came to mind when we discussed ethics in my Communication class, COMM309: Introduction to Public Relations, was about beauty influencers and the cosmetic industry. Beauty influencers are known to receive boxes of new products that beauty brands put out, referred to as PR boxes. They often include new products in decorated packaging with other free items related to the products. I have noticed this more and more in recent years on platforms like Tiktok or Instagram, but I even grew up watching “unboxings” and reviews on Youtube. I spoke to University of Delaware Professor Tara Smith about the ethics of gifted and sponsored content, in general and in relation to the beauty industry, and this is what I learned from our discussion:
1. It’s all about disclosure.
Never assume that your audience knows that a product was sponsored or gifted. The reason gifted collaborations have such a gray area is because many fail to or don’t know how to properly tell their audience that the items are gifted. The FTC suggests that influencers avoid things like only putting a vague hashtag at the end of a post like “#gifted,” and, instead, make it as transparent as possible to the audience that there is a brand relationship. This can be done by fully and clearly stating in a video or post that the content was gifted. The FTC even says that thanking the brand for the products could be a proper way to disclose a business relationship if put in an obvious place of the post, same with the words ad, advertisement, or sponsorship. When a business relationship is fully disclosed in a post, the post would be considered ethical.
2. You can give gifted items to influencers, but there is more of a gray area when gifting to those outside of that category, like journalists.
A big part of beauty influencers’ jobs in this day and age is receiving gifted or sponsored content and posting about it. But there are gray areas when there are people who are influencers but also may work as a blogger or a journalist for a beauty magazine. Journalists are actually not allowed to receive any forms of gifts. Instead, a journalist may buy the product themself or borrow the product from the brand and give it back after their review or article.
3. Know who you are gifting to.
This is a big one. If an influencer has a history of just using a vague hashtag at the end of their post, this may not be an influencer that you want to work with. Know who you are gifting to and what their morals are, and make it clear about the guidelines you want them to follow to properly disclose the brand/ influencer relationship.
Overall, although it is generally considered the PR professional’s responsibility that the influencer discloses a brand relationship, I think that there needs to be more education on both sides about the ethics of gifted and sponsored posts to create the most ethical content for consumers. There are a lot of gray areas, but the main takeaway from my research and conversations has been this: when it comes to sponsored or gifted content, transparency is the most important thing. Always disclose, and disclose properly, in accordance with FTC guidelines.