If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. —Theodore Roosevelt
Those who know me know I have some really strong opinions about certain things and am typically not afraid to voice those opinions. One topic I am careful with, though, is choosing one brand of camera over another. There, I have to choose my words carefully because, being a photographer, what I say about a brand might constitute an endorsement. Making an endorsement attracts the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. If they think I might have been paid for an endorsement and failed to reveal that fact, I could get in a lot of trouble. Quickly.
At the same time, I also have to be careful about commenting on a certain set of games being held in and around Rio de Janerio, Brazil at the moment. The authoritarian and dictatorial governing body in charge of said events are heavy handed about anyone who is not paying out the ass to be a sponsor using anything that directly references the games in any method that might be construed as marketing. The list of potential offenses is long and nothing short of ridiculous. Never mind that you’re just being a fan trying to support the events and/or the athletes. You can’t even host a themed team-building event for your employees.
Yes, these guys are really that anal about the whole concept of non-sponsors even glancing at the games.
What Is An Endorsement, Anyway?
Let’s pretend for a moment that I showed you a picture of me holding a brand new camera, which would be cool because I could really, really use a brand new camera. Being that I’m excited about my fictional brand new camera, I would likely fill a page with all the wonderful things that this camera can do. I might just even tell you that it is better than rival brands. Being a fan of the camera, I’m likely to say a lot of things that might encourage you to purchase the same brand and model. That would be an endorsement.
Endorsements are a great way to build a brand. Word of mouth, people liking a product well enough to tell their friends and neighbors, is better advertising than all the television commercials in the world. That’s why that online store from which you purchased your rainbow-colored toe socks is really hoping that you’ll leave a review on their website. Good reviews are also a form of endorsement.
What causes trouble, though, is that sometimes people get paid for making those endorsements. They post a video on YouTube or a picture on Instagram that says good things about a product and the company gives them money and/or products for their own use. Wouldn’t we all like a little bit of that action? What causes trouble, though, is when we don’t actually say that you’ve been paid to say what you just said. That’s when the FTC gets all upset.
What You Cannot Do
Between FTC regulations and IOC regulations, just tweeting that you’re drinking a Coke while watching pole vaulting can get you into trouble if you post that tweet from a business account. First, Olympic officials are going to be upset that you mentioned a specific Olympic event. You’re not a sponsor so that’s a no-no. Then, since your tweet could be construed as an endorsement, the FTC wants to know who paid for that soda. If you were at a Coca-Cola sponsored event, of which there are many, then your tweet may constitute a paid endorsement.
For a small business, especially, the endorsement waters are full of trouble. Let’s say you have a regular customer who talks up your business to everyone she knows. You’ve made more than a few sales because of her influence. So, the next time she’s in the store you give her one of her items for free as a way of expressing your thanks. Then, because she’s 23, she goes on snapchat and tells all her friends how wonderful that item is. Yay, more business, right? Maybe, but if she doesn’t disclose that you gave her that item, regardless of the reason, then you both could be in trouble.
The FTC has recently been cracking down on social media users who endorse products without mentioning that the endorsement is paid. When viewers know that an endorsement is paid, they respond differently, think more critically, and are more careful before making a purchase. Failing to disclose payment is something the FTC likes to call deceptive advertising. That’s trouble you really don’t want.
See how confusing this can get?
What You Can Do
There are some creative ways of getting around the IOC’s idiotic rules. To a large degree, timing is everything. Once the games are over, you can talk about Michael Phelp’s game face all you want. Using euphemism and synonyms keeps one out of trouble as well. Even the IOC doesn’t have the power to block inferred relationships that might or might not be intended. Still, one needs to be careful and choose their words wisely before actually setting anything out in the public space, especially on major social media sites such as Facebook.
With other paid endorsements, making sure the person doing the endorsing knows that they’re being endorsed (not everyone understands the subtleties of a free box of donuts) is a start. Making sure they mention that their photo or video is sponsored is also a very easy way to keep the FTC off your back. Staying within the law really doesn’t have to be all that difficult.
Of course, some people don’t like the world knowing that they’re being paid for their endorsements. They feel that such disclosure makes their words seem less genuine and calls into question their sincerity. Too bad. If they don’t play by the rules, it’s the sponsor who gets in trouble. Make sure they understand the consequences before they start taking pictures of that burrito you just gave them.
If All Else Fails …
If you’re concerned about accidentally getting into trouble, there are a couple of very easy steps you can take to ensure compliance.
- Ignore everything happening in Brazil. Or Pyeongchang. Or Tokyo.
- Make sure you’re handling all your own social media marketing without any paid endorsements.
Yeah, I know, those are not attractive choices. If you want to play it safe, though, that’s the baseline. Of course, you could hire a consultant who understands the intricacies of these matters. But then, the IRS has to be informed of that activity, too.
There’s just trouble everywhere you look.