If your favorite influencer on social media can’t get enough of an artificial sweetener or talks a lot about sugar in beverages, there could be a reason that has little to do with health: Paid advertising.
This week, the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to two trade associations and 12 registered dietitians and other online health influencers telling them they must disclose if their Instagram and TikTok posts promoting the safety of aspartame and sugar-containing products are basically paid ads.
“It’s irresponsible for any trade group to hire influencers to tout its members’ products and fail to ensure that the influencers come clean about that relationship,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a written statement. “That’s certainly true for health and safety claims about sugar and aspartame, especially when made by registered dieticians and others upon whom people rely for advice about what to eat and drink.”
The letters said that “consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily and not have to look for it.”
Per the news release on FTC.gov, “The letters to the trade groups, the American Beverage Association (AmeriBev) and the Canadian Sugar Institute, express concerns that the organizations may have violated the FTC Act by failing to adequately disclose that the influencers were apparently hired to promote the safety of aspartame or the consumption of sugar-containing products, respectively. This action follows FTC’s recent revision of the Commission’s Guides for Endorsements and Testimonials, and is part of the agency’s continued monitoring of influencer marketing.”
NBC News reported that the disclosure rule “applies to paid sponsorships, promotions in exchange for free products and in cases of any business or familial relationships.”
The letter to the American Beverage Association highlighted concerns about posts by influencers Valerie Agyeman, Nichole Andrews, Leslie Bonci, Keri Gans, Stephanie Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, Andrea Miller, Idrees Mughal, Adam Pecoraro and Mary Ellen Phipps.
Each of them also received a personal warning letter.
An association spokesman wrote in an email to NBC News that the group appreciates the guidance and “will continue its ongoing commitment to disclose its relationships with dieticians.”
“We took proactive, prudent and meticulous steps to be transparent about our partnership with credible experts who spoke to the science behind the safety of aspartame and the FDA’s determination that it is safe,” the spokesperson wrote. “Importantly, no question has been raised about the substance of these posts.”
The letter to the Canadian Sugar Institute pointed to posts on Instagram by influencers Jenn Messina and Lindsay Pleskot. They, too, received individual warning letters.
The guidelines require clear and “conspicuous” disclosure of “unexpected material connections” so that consumers know what’s behind endorsements.
The release said that “each of the warning letters identified what appeared to be paid posts that either did not disclose a material connection or that contained disclosures that may be inadequate.” FTC staff concerns included placing the disclosure where it was not clearly noticed, ambiguous language and failure to identify clearly sponsors of posts. Letters also noted the influencers and trade organizations could face hefty civil penalties of as much as $50,120 for each future failure.
The onus was also put on letter recipients to contact the FTC within 15 days and explain what action is being or has been taken.