Disclosure. This is a disclosure.

This is a guest post from Mitch Joel — President, Mirum and author of “Six Pixels of Separation” and “CTRL ALT Delete.” See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.


How often are you trolling the social media feeds and you see some kind of post about how great something is, or why you may want to check something out? It sounds encouraging. It’s exciting. You click the link. Suddenly, you’re immersed in a form of content, and your mind begins to wander back to the person who told you all about this experience. The pieces start to click into place, and it’s just then that you realize that this individual works for the company, has them as a client, or it’s about a business that they are somehow connected to (their spouse works there or it’s owned by their brother).

In a sense, you feel duped. In another sense, you don’t begrudge the person, because they’re simply trying to help out a friend, family member, client or employer. We’re in this desperate race to create as much attention as possible, in a world where attention is becoming a much more scarce resource.

One must disclose.

This is the day and age of disclosure. Social media brought forth a whole new level of transparency for brands and the people who create content. You don’t have to look far to see how important clear disclosure and transparency is. Just look at your employment agreement.

Every corporate social media guidelines has sections (sometimes pages) on the topic of transparency and disclosure. It’s become such a strong issue that organizations like the FTC are involved. They’re creating laws around disclosure, and are doing its best to set-up frameworks and fines for those who should know better.

This is a real issue.

It makes perfect sense that the FTC will hold publishers responsible for misleading consumers with native advertising. If it’s an ad, it should look like an ad. If the advertiser wants to partner with a publisher to create a special kind of content (that looks more like content than an ad), it’s important that there is not a sense that the consumer is being misled.

Is there an obvious solution? Is there a clear way to identify something as native advertising? That’s a tough one. The FCC is clearly stating that they would like advertisers to think about how they are disclosing what an advertisement is, in the general flow of what consumers are seeing. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to sticky. But, this is something that our industry desperately needs.

Still, can disclosures be pushed too far?

Is “liking” a brand on social media an endorsement? Well, if you thought that the issue of disclosure and native advertising is a tough one to resolve, the FTC is also saying that Facebook “likes” and Pinterest photos can be endorsements as well. While the FTC is not sending people to prison or racking up fines, they are using language like this: “Simply posting a picture of a product in social media, such as on Pinterest, or a video of you using it could convey that you like and approve of the product. If it does, it’s an endorsement… You don’t necessarily have to use words to convey a positive message.” So, what’s a brand to do in a world where a lot of these platforms don’t allow individuals or brands to disclose any incentives? The answer is a little frightening. The FTC is saying that brands should avoid soliciting endorsements on those platforms.

What kind of crazy world do we live in?

Regardless of whether or not this can policed. Regardless of the fact that Facebook implemented its own rules that brands can’t exchange likes for incentives, we are seeing something that must be paid attention to. There should be concern, thought, and care given to marketing programs that are using influencers (or even regular consumers) to speak, share or boost something online.

We all know and want consumers to fully disclose when they have been giving any form of free goods or services. Now, we’re moving to a world where simply liking or pinning something can be considered a formal endorsement as well? It’s seems like a stretch and we’re going to need a happy medium.

The question is this: Can brands pull it together to self-regulate the situation, or are we going to let the government decide for us?

About Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. He is also a blogger, podcaster, journalist, speaker, and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and "CTRL ALT Delete." Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Marketing Magazine, Profit, Strategy, Money, The Globe & Mail, and many other media outlets.

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