A dozen social media influencers and two trade associations received warnings from the Federal Trade Commission on Monday for endorsing the safety of aspartame, an artificial sweetener, or promoting the consumption of products containing sugar.
By using health and diet creators, many of whom have large platforms on Instagram and TikTok, to market these products without adequately disclosing their connection to the advertiser, the American Beverage Association and the Canadian Sugar Institute may have violated FTC rules, according to warning letters the commission sent to the two groups.
“Consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily and not have to look for it,” said the letters, which the FTC shared on a press release.
That means that in a promotional TikTok video or Instagram Reel, the disclosure must be audible in the video itself and visible in the text description. The rule applies to paid sponsorships, promotions in exchange for free products, and in cases of business or family relationships.
None of the posts targeted by the FTC included any disclosures in the videos themselves, and some creators did not fully indicate their material connection to the beverage association anywhere in the post.
“It is irresponsible for any trade group to hire influencers to promote its members’ products and fail to ensure that the influencers make that relationship clear,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. . “That’s certainly true for health and safety claims about sugar and aspartame, especially when they’re made by registered dietitians and other people whom people trust for advice about what to eat and drink.”
Some in-text disclosures that label a post as “#sponsored” or “#ad” hide those hashtags in several lines in the post’s description, according to the letters, making them not clear enough to the average user, especially because Users must click to open. the full publication when they have longer descriptions.
According to the FTC, the use of “paid partnership” disclosure labels in the app is also not sufficient when used alone, because viewers can overlook them too easily.
The FTC’s warnings are consistent with its recent revised advertising guidespublished in June, which addresses “misleading” reviews and endorsements.
In its letters related to the beverage partnership, the FTC expressed concern about posts on TikTok and Instagram by influencers (some of whom are dietitians) who have built online followings largely for giving health advice.
Those listed in the letter include: Valerie Agyeman, Nichole Andrews, Leslie Bonci, Keri Gans, Stephanie Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, Andrea Miller, Idrees Mughal, Adam Pecoraro and Mary Ellen Phipps. The FTC said it also examined Instagram videos of Jenn Messina and Lindsay Pleskot in its CSI investigation. Each of the influencers has followers ranging from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand followers. Two of them, Grasso and Mughal, have more than a million each.
Harbstreet, a dietitian with about 38,500 followers on TikTok, wrote in a statement to NBC News that she shares the FTC’s goal of transparent disclosure and protecting audiences from misinformation, and that she plans to ensure compliance with its updated guidelines.
“Conflicts of interest are not something I take lightly and I have strict standards in place to determine which partners I work with. One of those many considerations is the quality of the science,” Harbstreet wrote. “In this case, I support what the evidence currently indicates about the safety of aspartame. “This is supported by numerous national and international health organizations and food safety review committees.”
NBC News has contacted other influencers named in the letter for comment. They did not immediately respond Wednesday.
The Canadian Sugar Institute did not immediately respond with a comment Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the American Beverage Association wrote in an email statement that the association appreciates the FTC’s guidance and will continue its “ongoing commitment” to disclosing its relationships with dietitians.
“We took proactive, prudent and meticulous steps to be transparent about our partnership with credible experts who spoke about the science behind the safety of aspartame and the FDA’s determination that it is safe,” the spokesperson wrote. “Importantly, no questions have been raised about the content of these publications.”
Both the trade associations and each of the influencers involved face possible civil penalties of up to $50,120 per violation. Each recipient has 15 business days to tell the FTC what he has done or will do to address the agency’s concerns, according to the letters.