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Instagram influencers are being too sneaky about what's an ad, FTC says

It has to be very clear if you're getting paid (or getting some other benefit) to promote a product.

If someone is getting paid to mention a fashion brand or drink – or any other product – on Instagram, then that needs to be very clear to followers.

And right now, it's not very clear some of the time, at least according to one federal agency.

The Federal Trade Commission says it sent out 90 letters to Instagram influencers – including celebrities and athletes – reminding them to be up front about when they're getting paid to plug something.

So what are the rules?

Anybody who is promoting a product they got for free, or is doing so as part of an endorsement/marketing deal, or has any other kind of "material connection" to the product, has to say that in a clear and easy-to-see way, the FTC explains. There’s no specific language that’s needed, just a general heads-up.

“The point is to give readers the essential information. A simple disclosure like ‘Company X gave me this product to try …’ will usually be effective,” the agency says.

The FTC says in the Instagram case, it got some reports from individuals and groups, and did a review to see if any might be skirting those guidelines.

You can't bury it beneath hashtags and emojis

The FTC in its Instgram warning said the promotion disclosure should be within the first three lines of the post – otherwise it's hidden beneath the "more" button for mobile users. Also, hashtags or vague language isn't enough, and can be confusing or just skipped over.

The agency specifically mentioned "disclosure like '#sp,' 'Thanks [Brand],' or '#partner'" as examples of disclosures that aren't clear enough.

The FTC didn't name any names or accounts it sent the letters too, however.

So what happens now?

Nobody actually got in trouble (unlike the Warner Bros. case, when they got a slap on the wrist for accusations they paid YouTubers to give good reviews of a video game).

But it's something of a landmark step for the FTC as it navigates the social media advertising space – it's the first time the agency has reached out to influencers directly to explain what they need to disclose.

This is especially important as advertising through social media personalities continues to grow. Forbes said it's going to "explode" in 2017, with 84 percent of marketers it surveyed saying they plan to advertise that way. The benefit is that it reaches you – the engaged consumer – directly, and can be targeted based on things you like.

And this study by Mediakix says Instagram influencer promotion could be a $2.4 billion industry before 2020.

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