Given the spontaneous nature of social media, marketers continue to push the envelope using creative and innovative ways to promote their brands online. However, as with all advertisements, companies must comply with federal and state regulations in their online marketing strategies.
Whether it’s a poorly written profile bio, leveraging celebrities, or unintentionally using ambiguous language, the potential for legal consequences that come with online marketing are everywhere.
As a community manager (and, to be clear, not a legal specialist), I’ve found that running through the following checklist helps me steer clear of most problems.
- Be accurate. Make sure your ads are factually correct and that they don’t intend to deceive or mislead the consumer. Otherwise, you may have to answer to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the primary U.S. agency that takes action against unlawful advertising.
- Get permission. Along with the FTC, the Lanham Act was enacted to protect against trademark infringement, as well as false advertisements and endorsements. If your ad features someone’s picture, quotes material from another individual, or uses the name of a national organization, save yourself a legal headache and get documented permission.
- Substantiate, substantiate, substantiate. As a general rule of thumb, all advertisements must have substantial evidence or a “reasonable basis” to support any factual statement in an ad before it’s disseminated.
- Treat competitors fairly. Advertisers often use comparative advertising, but don’t criticize the goods, services, or reputation of your competitors by giving false or misleading information. If you compare yourself with other companies, double check your information to make sure that every statement in your ad is accurate.
- Be careful what you say. Be clear and conspicuous! If you advertise that goods or services are “free,” be sure there are no hidden terms or conditions. If there are any limits, state them clearly. When you advertise goods for sale, make every effort to have enough on hand to supply the demand. Be truthful in all claims about pricing.
- Be careful how you say it. Don’t muddy your advertisement with potentially misleading language. Disclose any terms, conditions, or limitations, and make sure to include all the fine print.
- Use celebrities and testimonials fairly. Celebrities and public figures have rights of publicity to prevent false endorsements. These rights include identifying characteristics like silhouettes, voices, nicknames, etc. Don’t use the name, photograph, or likeness of a public figure in an advertisement without their consent. Likewise, testimonials should be real and accurately reflect the consumer experience. Include clear and conspicuous disclaimers.
- Know your state laws. Most states also have laws that regulate advertising. Advertising on social media doesn’t make you immune to these regulations.
- Leave a lasting impression. Advertisements are assessed through the context and perspective of the consumer. Make sure the overall takeaway of the ad (not just the individual parts) is not false or misleading. Taken as a whole, your ad must fairly inform the average consumer.
It’s a complex environment to navigate, and one that takes a lot of attention. What’s your experience with social media advertising? Do you have any leading practices you’d add to the list?
Laura Anderson is a Senior Community Manager at the Deloitte Digital Studio, Deloitte Consulting LLP in Pioneer Square, Seattle. She is also currently pursuing a Master of Communication in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter at @laanderson.