FTC: Social media influencers are becoming a bad influence

"Influencers" don't always disclose that they are paid by companies or trade groups.

The Federal Trade Commission is worried that social media "influencers" – often little more than shills for commercial interests – are getting a little too enthusiastic about spreading misleading, hyped and often just plain wrong information with virtually no oversight.

In its most recent attempt to get control of the situation, the commission has sent warning letters to two trade associations and 12 registered dieticians and other online health influencers. The letters warn the influencers and trade groups about the lack of adequate disclosures in their Instagram and TikTok posts promoting the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame or the consumption of sugary products.

“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.

“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,” Levine said.

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.

The letter to AmeriBev details concerns about posts on Instagram and TikTok by Valerie Agyeman, Nichole Andrews, Leslie Bonci, Keri Gans, Stephanie Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, Andrea Miller, Idrees Mughal, Adam Pecoraro, and Mary Ellen Phipps, each of whom also received an individual warning letter.

The letter to Leslie Bonci, a Pittsburgh area dietician, states:

"You posted dietary advice on lnstagram endorsing the safety of aspartame. On July 14, 2023, you posted an image to Instagram which communicated that it was safe to consume up to 75 sweetener packets of aspartame per day. ... Aspartame and other sweeteners can be a solution for those who want the taste of sweet without the sugar.

It appears that you were paid by the American Beverage Association ("ABA") to make those posts."

Bonci, besides her social media roles, operates a website, ActiveEatingAdvice.com, that offers tips for purportedly healthful cooking. We have invited her to respond to the FTC allegations.

The letter to The Canadian Sugar Institute expresses concerns about Instagram posts by Jenn Messina and Lindsay Pleskot, each of whom also received an individual warning letter.

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.

"Clear and conspicuous" disclosure needed

The letters note that paid endorsements should clearly and conspicuously disclose any unexpected material connections to ensure that consumers have the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions.

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. Each letter explained staff’s concerns regarding particular disclosures, including inconspicuous placement, ambiguous language, or the failure to clearly identify the sponsor of the posts.

Each letter also included the FTC’s notice of penalty offenses concerning misleading endorsements and noted that the recipient could face civil penalties of up to $50,120 per violation for future failures to disclose unexpected material connections. Finally, each letter asked the recipient to contact agency staff within 15 days and detail any actions taken or that will be taken to address staff’s concerns.