Food industry influencers were recently at the center of a controversy highlighted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Last week, the FTC issued warning letters to two major groups in the food and beverage sector and several online food industry influencers. Their offense? Inadequate disclosure of paid social media posts that endorsed a sweetener and various sugary products.
These influencers, affiliated with the American Beverage Association and the Canadian Sugar Institute, had made posts on Instagram and TikTok. The American Beverage Association, a powerful lobbying group with members like Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, and the Canadian Sugar Institute, representing Canadian sugar manufacturers, appeared to have hired these influencers.
The issue at stake was the failure of these food industry influencers to clearly declare these posts as paid advertisements, as per the FTC’s recently updated guidelines. The intensified enforcement of disclosure rules for social media marketing campaigns marks a significant shift in accountability expectations for both the food industry influencer community and the industry itself.
This crackdown aims to establish a new standard for transparency, particularly when the funding sources behind these campaigns are not explicitly stated. This move could notably alter the social media landscape, where food industry influencers often use ambiguous hashtags like #ad or #sponsored, rather than directly naming their sponsors.
Investigations by The Washington Post and the Examination have uncovered how the food and beverage industry has been employing food industry influencers, particularly dietitians, to disseminate industry-aligned messages. Often, these posts by food industry influencers fail to adequately disclose sponsorship details, blurring the lines of transparency.
Samuel Levine, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Director, told the Washington Post that organizations, especially sophisticated ones like trade associations, should be well-versed in these laws. With this recent action, the FTC intends to set a disclosure precedent that extends beyond the food and beverage sectors to the entire influencer marketing industry. Levine anticipates that this announcement will resonate not just with trade groups and food industry influencers but also in other sectors where influencer disclosure might be overlooked.
A spokesman for the American Beverage Association asserted their thorough approach to transparency in partnerships with dietitians. They expressed their ongoing commitment to disclose the nature of these relationships and appreciated the FTC’s guidance for enhancing consumer transparency.
This FTC action is a part of the agency’s broader effort to define norms for social media marketing, a field that’s rapidly growing and often likened to the Wild West of advertising. Worldwide, ad spending in the influencer advertising market is projected to reach over $30 billion this year and is expected to reach $47.8 billion by 2027 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.61 percent.
Notable food industry influencers, including dietitians with significant followings and a physician known as “Dr Idz” on social media platforms, were among those who received warning letters from the FTC.
Levine stressed the importance of these warnings, especially for trusted professionals like dietitians and medical providers, expressing disappointment in the current state of influencer marketing. Meanwhile, the Canadian Sugar Institute has yet to comment on the issue.
Previously, both trade groups defended their practices, stating that the nutrition influencers they hired had adequately disclosed their affiliations through hashtags or other means on their social media posts. Some influencers also believed they had complied with disclosure rules by using these methods.