Global regulators differ in their approach to “#spon” for sponsored Tweets

We’ve known for quite a while that the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wouldn’t look too kindly on the use of the hashtag “#spon” to disclose that a Tweet is a paid, or sponsored Tweet.  And thanks to eModeration, we think we’ve just found out why.

The US FTC released its .com Disclosures Guidelines in March 2013, which included mock-up examples of acceptable and unacceptable paid Tweets.  The Guidelines state that “consumers might not understand that “#spon” means that the message was sponsored by an advertiser.  If a significant proportion of reasonable viewers would not, then the ad would be deceptive.

Although reports from as early as 2010 suggested that Twitter ads were being marked “#spon”, perhaps FTC drafters also had in mind the January 2012 Snickers PR stunt in the UK involving Katie Price.  Ms Price is the glamour model, occasional singer and, most significantly for Aussies who hummed along to ‘Gimme Little Sign’ in 1993, the former wife of singer Peter Andre.  After a series of Tweets discussing the Eurozone debt crisis, which left many of her followers initially guessing she’d been hacked, the fifth tweet clarified the issue: “You’re not you when you’re hungry @snickersUk #hungry #spon”, with a picture of the star holding up a Snickers bar.  You can see the stream of Tweets and the photo here.  Snickers’ campaign also involved other celebrities including Rio Ferdinand, Sir Ian Botham and former X Factor contestant Cher Lloyd.

Following two complaints, the UK Advertising Standards Authority investigated the Snickers Twitter campaign (its first investigation into advertising on Twitter).  However, the ASA ruled that as the final tweet made clear the series of tweets were advertising (by using “#spon”), consumers were not likely to be misled.

It’s fascinating to see the way in which the global landscape of Twitter is regulated by opposing rules and guidelines in different jurisdictions.  The UK Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is the body responsible for marketing and maintaining the UK Advertising Codes.  [Ed: As an aside, you simply must check out the CAP’s Guide titled “Delivering a royal baby ad” which informs advertisers how they may leverage off the impending Royal birth without being misleading.]  As recently as last month, the CAP released some tips on the ‘rules of social engagement’, encouraging advertising to use “#spon” to make sponsored Tweets obvious.  This is directly at odds with guidance from the FTC in the US.

The New Zealand position is more in line with the US.  Its Advertising Standards Authority issued a Guidance Note in October 2012 indicating that sponsored Tweets should include the hashtag “#ad”.

In Australia, while our Interactive Advertising Bureau released brief guidelines (which we posted about here), the ACCC has not yet given specific guidance in relation to “#spon”, or “#ad”, but we are staying tuned.  The overarching consideration will be whether the conduct, viewed as a whole, is misleading or deceptive, or likely to mislead or deceive.  The shifting sands of jurisdiction-based social media regulation certainly make it a challenging time to be a global brand.

About the Author

Samantha McHugh
Samantha McHugh is a solicitor loving everything media, food, fashion and IP, who would like to get to pilates more frequently. With a penchant for mustard-coloured home furnishings and a mean repertoire of desserts, Sam has dreams of one day juggling a successful legal career with a chase for an endless summer around the globe. Sam also enjoys reality TV and online shopping to an extent which is unhealthy. Sam loves writing posts about branding, marketing, celebrities and anything that makes her giggle.
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