Near the close of 2009, two regulatory bodies, the FTC and FDA, took steps to revise existing guidelines governing advertising to consumers. The issue: the internet and social media.
As most of us know on a personal, if not professional level, social media holds inherent value as a channel through which we can quickly find information, credibly share experiences and intimately connect with others. With the growth in UGC and social conversations, individuals and advertisers alike have discovered means to monetize this content to provide additional benefits to themselves or other stakeholders. As a result, the concern over loss of information authenticity and public safety given the commercialism of social media has come in the cross hairs of the government.
In November, the FDA held hearings inviting speakers and presenters to demonstrate how drug companies use the web and other social media to promote pharmaceuticals as well as how consumers are influenced by social tools. On December 1, the FTC’s new guidelines for bloggers went into effect, requiring them to disclose any products or relationships they have with companies or advertisers.
So, why all the fuss? With more and more “sponsored” content, the question is in how credible the sources of information can truly be. There are protective rules in place to safeguard consumers and patients in the everyday sales transactions and consumption behaviors in which we all participate. The FTC works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. FDA ensures that food, drugs, biological products and medical devices are safe, and honestly, accurately and informatively represented to the public.
However, the new guidelines (or lack thereof in certain circumstances) from these organizations have come under intense scrutiny and debate ranging from is the internet being unfairly targeted as a medium, or how can the government possibly police and enforce these rules, to should an advertiser be responsible for monitoring the content outside of something they created?
My recommendation: Be transparent. Disclose, disclose, disclose.
It’s the right thing to do.
Based on the responsibilities of these agencies, it is not surprising that the internet and social media become part of their guidelines. I argue that by providing guidelines, advertisers can better leverage these new tools, as opposed to feeling uncertain whether or not something is against the rules. As advertisers, we have to be knowledgeable about these rules and regulations to conduct business in a fair and legal way. To summarize the outcomes of the two recent events, I will use two words, which I endorse as best practice for all advertisers: disclosure and transparency.
Disclosure: FTC Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials
The revised FTC guidelines as part of the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers or spokespeople who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. I recommend to advertisers that proper disclosure of endorsements and sponsorship is in their best interest.
Transparency: FDA Hearings on Internet and Social Media
The hearings were successful in demonstrating the uniqueness and importance of the Internet and social media in informing and educating the public about health issues, including communicating risk and benefits of drugs.
As my colleague and I presented during the BDI Social Communications & Healthcare Conference in July, social media requires five basic tenets, of which transparency is imperative. The five basic tenets should guide companies as they being to leverage social media:
Transparency was the primary theme at the hearings and a number of best practices were presented to the FDA to provide responsible solutions to social tactics, such as space-limited messaging or paid search ads. I am currently working with clients and partners using these best practices in an effort to be more transparent to the public. For instance, beta Google search ads are being developed on behalf of our biotech/pharma clients to be shared with DDMAC. Likewise, I advocate the one-click rule for sharing ISI and PI, as well as rich media fair balance. These guides will continue to evolve as more feedback is provided by FDA.
In closing, I argue that any online strategy initiated by an advertiser, be it CPG, retail, B2B, or healthcare, must keep consistent with seeking outcomes that are legal, substantiated, and ethically responsible, regardless of the current state of any regulatory guidance. It’s the right thing to do.