In October 2022, social media sensation Kim Kardashian paid a $1.26 million fine for promoting a cryptocurrency product on Instagram. The problem wasn't that she was using her immense social platform to promote products; the problem is that she failed to disclose to her audience that she was being paid to do so. The story serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who publicly recommends products or services: Before you publish, post, tweet or like, familiarize yourself with the rules of engagement.
Truth and Testimonials
The Federal Trade Commission guidelines for endorsements and testimonials extend longstanding government recommendations about "truth in advertising," not only in traditional media like television, radio and print, but in digital and social media. That means registered dietitian nutritionists who are compensated in exchange for reviewing or endorsing products online are subject to the laws governing truthful advertising.
Joy R. Butler, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and author of The Cyber Citizen's Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Internet Law for Your Professional Online Presence (Sashay Communications 2010), elaborates: "The FTC is particularly concerned by people who receive compensation for posting online reviews, recommendations and endorsements. The FTC reasons that the typical consumer might not realize the new media reviewer received compensation in exchange for the review. Since consumers are inclined to place more confidence in reviews written by completely independent people than in reviews written by people who have received compensation, the FTC wants the reviewer to disclose any compensation."
What Is Considered Compensation?
Compensation can mean not only money, but coupons, samples, gifts, paid travel, stocks, payments from affiliate links and anything else of value. Failure to disclose compensation could result in hefty fines, and the FTC may pursue action against advertisers, endorsers, reviewers and any other entity in violation of the government guidelines.
"Failure to adhere to the guidelines can prompt the FTC to review your online activity and initiate an action against you if it determines your failure to follow the guidelines has resulted in a business practice that deceives or misleads consumers," Butler says.
"If an RDN doesn't disclose and it becomes discovered, they immediately lose credibility — and that can be incredibly damaging to the RDN's reputation," adds Paul Rand, past president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and founder and CEO of Zócalo Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm. "If, on the other hand, they clearly and accurately disclose, it actually may end up enhancing their reputations that they were thought of well enough by these brands to be a paid consultant for them."
Disclosure Do's and Don'ts
The best way to ensure you're complying with current federal guidelines and best practices is by making sure you work only with credible clients, keeping in mind that product publicity and marketing often are handled by public relations firms — and not all PR playbooks follow the rules. "Being an educated and informed person in this area means you know what your [clients'] obligations are and can determine if they're going to meet them," explains Rand, who says the best way to evaluate a client's credibility is to know the rules and ask appropriate questions to establish that your clients know them, too.
Remember: It's a publicity firm's job to promote a client's brand; it's your job to protect your brand. "It would be a good idea for experts to establish a personal pitch policy that outlines what they're willing to review and the fact that offering compensation or free products does not guarantee a positive review," Gallicano says. "This can help professionals keep their credibility intact."
While the line between "ethical" and "questionable" isn't always clear, RDNs can avoid crossing it by keeping the following top of mind:
"Transparency is an important guideline to keep in mind for everything that is done online," says Tiffany Gallicano, PhD, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Oregon. "Hiding relationships is shady, and the truth eventually emerges." Always say who you are — never blog or post anonymously — and where you got your information. "When giving reviews, RDNs should consider providing information about what they are basing their opinions on," Gallicano says. "If there are unknowns about a product's safety or significant limitations of supporting studies, this information should be noted."
FTC guidelines recommend prominent disclosures in every relevant post, wherever you post it — and for video-based platforms like TikTok or YouTube, mentioning the disclosure in your video in addition to disclosing in the captions is best. And remember: A single disclosure on your homepage or bio is not sufficient. "If your blog consists of [paid] reviews or if you receive complimentary products, include a brief disclosure sentence on each post as well as a more detailed disclosure on a separate web page," says Butler. "In contrast, if you do paid endorsements only occasionally, it may be sufficient to provide a brief disclosure on the relevant post."
"It's not surprising that brand marketers want to recruit RDNs to spread positive word of mouth online," Gallicano says. "Brand marketers need to be told, however, that payment and free products or services do not guarantee a positive review. Your reputation is not for sale. The payment is for your time taken to review the product, not the outcome of the review."
If you're a fan of a particular product or brand, you may want to post on social media about why you enjoy it — without any affiliation or compensation. The FTC does not require disclosure when there is no relationship between you and the brand or when the post is not part of a sponsored campaign. However, you may include in your post a phrase such as "not sponsored" or use the hashtag #notsponsored. This is optional and can signal to followers and viewers that you are not being compensated in any way.
This article, originally published in 2014 in Food & Nutrition Magazine®, has been updated to reflect current platforms and trends. If you believe a credentialed practitioner has violated the Code of Ethics for the Nutrition and Dietetics Profession, please learn more about submitting a complaint.
- Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers: As a membership organization, the Academy strongly encourages food and nutrition practitioners to adhere to FTC guidelines. The Academy does not monitor individual practitioners' online activities, including their adherence to FTC guidelines.
- The Code of Ethics for the Nutrition and Dietetics Profession: The Disciplinary and Ethics Complaints Policy for the Code of Ethics has been established to fairly address complaints about nutrition and dietetics practitioners from peers or the public.
- Approaches to Ethical Decision-Making: Ethics in Practice 2023 Update (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2023)
- Guidance for Professional Use of Social Media in Nutrition and Dietetics Practice (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2022)
- Ethics in Practice: Livestreaming (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2023)
- Identifying and Managing Conflicts of Interest (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2020)
- Academy Social Media Policy: We prohibit the sharing or transmittal of any content that contains product or service endorsements or any content that may be construed as requests for contributions, solicitations or political lobbying that are not part of the Academy's public policy and advocacy initiatives.
- The Commission on Dietetic Registration CPEU Prior Approval Program policy manual: The program, which will go into effect on April 1, 2024, includes Policy 7.0 Marketing and Commercial Bias in CPE. To promote high-quality, independent CPE, CDR will mandate that CPE cannot be used as a vehicle for product or service marketing. The CDR CPEU Prior Approval Program policies were created and approved by the CDR Competency Assurance Panel and the Commission Board to better align with standards adopted by other health care professions and with careful consideration of criteria implemented by Joint Accreditation for Interprofessional Continuing Education. CDR is one of 10 collaborating accreditors with Joint Accreditation.
- Influencing with Integrity: FTC Disclosure for Nutrition Communicators: This webinar will empower nutrition professionals with the knowledge to embrace opportunities with confidence and to adopt best practices when collaborating with organizations and brands in the dynamic online influencer space.
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