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Introducing Twitter-disclosure Slashtags

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It’s official. On December 1, 2009, the FTC’s new disclosure guidelines went into effect. So what does this mean for Twitter users?

It means that you must disclose any financial relationship that you have with a product, service, company, or industry that you tweet about.

To make disclosure easy on Twitter, I’m proposing a set of Twitter-disclosure slashtags.

First My Disclaimer

I disclaim any liability. I am not an authority on this matter. I am not an attorney. This is not legal advice. I am only proposing a possible approach in this article. It is up to each individual or entity to understand fully and to follow properly the FTC’s new disclosure guidelines. You should review the new FTC guidelines and this proposal with your attorney.

Now, the Background Stuff

The newly-revised FTC guideline, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” is dry and not really a great read. It applies to all forms of advertising, not just online media.

In a nutshell, the FTC’s new guidelines require disclosure when you mention in any online medium:

  • any product or service you’ve received as a free gift which you review / test / endorse
  • any product or service you’ve been paid to review / test / endorse
  • any company for which you work
  • any industry in which you work

All of these constitute some sort and degree of financial relationship which you must clearly disclose on any blog, tweet, forum post, or any other social media format that exists.

Hey, I don’t make the rules. You can choose not to follow them at your own peril—up to $11,000 in fines for each infraction.

Examples, Please!

Here are two examples.

Yesterday, Google held a big media event to unveil officially their Nexus One phone. Soon after the event, Robert Scoble tweeted this:

.@gruber everyone at the Google Android event was given a choice. Either take a loaner phone for 30 days or take a free phone.

He then followed that with this tweet:

.@gruber I took a loaner phone because I’m not paying $300+ to cancel my Verizon account that I just bought just to switch to a nicer phone.

Anyone who attended that event and received a free Nexus One is required to disclose that fact if they make any type of comment about that product in any online medium. It does not matter if they were given a “loaner phone” for 30 days. The point is that they were given a product from a company for free. Even if it is for a limited time, there is an implicit assumption that they’ll derive some benefit and their views may be influenced by the gift.

Like Robert, a number of people openly tweeted that they were given the Nexus One at the event. I assume his disclosure should be sufficient in meeting the new guidelines.

Here is another example. Last week, Twitter was aflutter with reports that Kim Kardashian may be getting paid as much as $10,000 per tweet for product endorsements. I missed that because I do not follow her or bother paying attention to entertainment gossip. She has disputed this claim, so take the claim for whatever its worth.

The point is that if she gets paid any amount or is simply given free product or service, then she needs to disclose that fact in her tweets whenever she mentions the product or service.

Now, as tweet real estate is limited, I do not think that every time a person tweets about the company or industry in which they work, that they have to necessarily mention this fact. Although I could be wrong.

I would think it matters how well a particular person is known by the community at large. For instance, if you are well known in the industry, if most people know where you work, you can probably skip disclosing that fact each time. Only use it for new announcements. However, if few people know you, then it is wise to use the appropriate disclosure slashtags when talking about your company or industry. But again, it is up to you to verify this with your attorney.

More Details

I’m sure that you’re wondering which rules specifically apply to your blogging and tweeting. The part of the FTC’s new guidelines that appear to me to be the most relevant to this discussion is Section 255.5—Disclosure of material connections (see Examples 7 and 8 under that section).

Also, these three links discuss the issue in more detail:

Disclosing in a Tweet-tight space

For purposes of our discussion, we will use the two example-disclosure statements suggested in the body of the post of the second link:

I work for Acme Widgets

and also

I’m an Acme Widgets customer. Acme Widgets has paid for my travel to attend this conference and golf tournament.

The first sentence is 23 characters long. The second, more verbose sentence, is 112 characters long.

Obviously, this is unacceptable for Twitter usage. You can’t afford to waste most of your tweet’s space with a disclosure of that length. With character space at a premium on Twitter (140 maximum), the first example is 16 percent of allowable message length, the second is 80 percent.

There needs to be a better, universally-recognized way to minimize character count while communicating a disclosure.

Enter the Twitter-Disclosure Slashtag

This set of proposed Twitter-disclosure slashtags is designed to be clear and concise, using only six characters each. The “$” symbol in the slashtag indicates that you have some type of reciprocal, financial relationship with the company, organization, industry, or product about which you are tweeting.

  1. /$empl –> I’m an employee of this company / organization; I work at the firm that manufactures this product; I’m in the industry being discussed
  2. /$exec –> I’m an executive at this company / organization; I manage the firm that manufactures this product; I’m in the industry being discussed
  3. /$paid –> This company pays me to review / test / endorse their products; the company that manufactures this product paid me to review / test / endorse it
  4. /$prod –> This product was given to me to review / test

Examples Using the Proposed Twitter-Disclosure Slashtag

Here are three example tweets:

IMO Xbox is the best gaming platform in the universe.

and

Apple just announced this game-changing product that will …

and

I love Stringy’s String Cheese. It’s the best!

In the first example, if you were given the product to test and review, then you should qualify your tweet with the appropriate disclosure slashtag like this:

IMO Xbox is the best gaming platform in the universe. /$prod

In the second example, if you worked as an executive at Apple, you should do this:

Apple just announced this game-changing product that will … /$exec

In the last example, if you were paid to endorse, or review, the product, you should do this:

I love Stringy’s String Cheese. It’s the best! /$paid

Making a Twitter-Disclosure Standard

As Andy Sernovitz states in his blog post:

Disclosure must be “clear and conspicuous”—understandable to the “average consumer.” This has always been the FTC standard. That means that hidden or unclear disclosure doesn’t count, and may even be interpreted as an attempt to evade the rules.

In other words, the use of these proposed Twitter-disclosure slashtags, while arguably conspicuous, may not be sufficiently clear in meaning to the average consumer.

The solution to this potential issue? I’m not sure.

However, there are many idiosyncrasies with Twitter that at first confuse all new users. If enough people blog about, tweet about, and actually use these proposed disclosure slashtags, then I think it could be argued that the FTC’s “clear and conspicuous” requirements would be satisfied.

When using Twitter, the average consumer already is required to learn the rules, quirks, and lingo. So what might confuse a new user should not be viewed as “hidden or unclear disclosure.” It is simply their lack of experience with the platform. A new Twitter user is not the average Twitter consumer.

To help push this proposal to the forefront of Twitter-disclosure debate, please tweet and blog about my proposal.

My Disclosure

For full disclosure on my part, I was not paid by anyone to endorse this proposal. I was not given free slashtags to test or use. I am not associated with the slashtag industry nor employed by any of its member companies.

What do you think

Will the new FTC guidelines change the way you blog, tweet, or participate in social media? Do you plan on following the FTC’s new disclosure guidelines? Do you plan on using these new, proposed Twitter-disclosure slashtags?

Article Comments

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Just got around to reading this post.

    The idea is interesting, and I suggest that you document it on the microsyntax wiki: http://microsyntax.pbworks.com.

    My initial feedback is that these tags don’t connect to normal conventions very clearly, and would mostly confuse people. I think you are right that if they were widely adopted and became a standard convention, that issue might go away, but you should never underestimate how hard it is to get people to adopt a new behavior!

    Instead, I think a better general practice is to use the URL field in the Twitter bio to link to a personal homepage, and from there, link to a disclosure statement. It’s not ideal, and it’s somewhat removed from the point of interaction, but one of the issues with embedding the disclosure in a tweet itself is the consequence of retweets or quoted tweets… that is, what happens when I retweet you with YOUR disclosure in my tweet? Although I wasn’t paid (let’s say) that creates kind of a weird situation, does it not?

    Perhaps a simpler approach (though longer) would be to just use the #paidendorsement hashtag?

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      Chris-

      Thank for the suggestion. I will add my proposal to the microsyntax wiki. I do believe it may be too complex of a proposal to catch on. The most important issue is discussing the need for proper disclosure coding in a microblogging context.

      Your spot on in your assessment of the potential pitfalls of using tweet-specific disclosure hashtags in general. Extending your retweet scenario, what would the potential FTC ramifications be of someone RTing a tweet that originally included a disclosure hashtag but was removed due to space limitations? Could the OT (original tweeter) be improperly accused of tweeting without disclosure?

      The other issue with my proposed hashtags is the use of the dollar sign. I’m not sure how Twitter will treat that symbol in searches—although it should be okay since the pound sign is parsed correctly.

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