Travelers United takes on the issue of disclosure of travel advertisements

Travelers United is fully committed to truth in travel advertising.

As a consumer protection organization focused on travel, an increasing concern we have heard over the last few years is that people are confused about the travel content they see on social media. Big travel influencers can now easily make over six figures a year and be paid to stay at some of the world’s most luxurious properties, but they rarely, if ever, disclose that they are being paid to post this content. Does the influencer really think the hotel they are posting about is the greatest hotel in the world or is a hotel paying them to say that?

Social media influencers must put “Ad,” “Advertisement” or “Sponsored” on each paid post

When consumers watch regular television it’s pretty easy to see what is a paid commercial and what is the regular television content. Why is it so confusing when it comes to social media? It shouldn’t be, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) came out with very specific guidelines in 2019 that said that social media influencers must put “Ad”, “Advertisement” or “Sponsored” prominently in the caption below each post. They also note that if an influencer makes a video, they should note it in the video as well. They are clear that the in-app disclosure is not enough (example: the “paid partnership with The Widget company” consumers see on Instagram). To be sufficiently clear, there should be in-app disclosure AND “Ad”, “Advertisement” or “Sponsored” should be the first word in any social media caption.

Any material connection must be disclosed

The FTC guidance is not just clear about what to do if an influencer is paid to post an item, but it is also clear about what to do if someone did not specifically get paid to promote an item but they got that item or service for free or at a discount. If an influencer receives a product for free with the idea that they would then promote that product, the influencer must make that clear in their posts on social media. In travel we often see this with hotel stays. A hotel may give an influencer a free room with the idea that the influencer will post about how wonderful the hotel is. This is fine, but the influencer must declare that they were gifted this stay. If, say, an airline offered a significant discount to a travel influencing family of five to fly across the world, this must also be clearly stated by the influencers in their social media posts. If an influencer is promoting one type of sunglasses in all of their travel content and of course making sure to provide a link to purchase those sunglasses in each post, the influencer must declare if, say, their mom runs the company that sells those sunglasses.

Data shows influencers lose followers when they disclose sponsorships

Though the FTC has been clear about this for five years now, many influencers still continue to not disclose when they are being paid to post on behalf of a brand, service or product. Influencers likely think they will lose some of their credibility with their followers if they make clear that they are posting advertisements. The Harvard Business Review wrote about this recently, reporting that “posting a sponsored video, the researchers found, caused influencers to lose an average of 0.17% of their followers over the subsequent three days.” Since there have been so few actions against influencers for failing to disclose they are posting advertisements, the influencer might see very little risk involved in not declaring a paid post is an advertisement. The influencer will risk breaking the rules in order to not lose any followers.

The Federal Trade Commission could bring cases against influencers and the brands they are advertising for failure to properly disclose their material connections, but the FTC has so far only issued warning letters. State attorneys general can also bring cases. The Texas Attorney General did recently bring its first case against an influencer. What people may not know is that non-profits like Travelers United can also act as the attorney general to enforce the laws of the state. In a private attorney general action, non-profits with an expertise in a subject (for us it is consumer protection related to travel) can sue to enforce the law. Travelers United has now brought two cases against travel influencers for failing to disclose their material connection to brands. We plan to bring more cases.

Travelers United stresses that we love the content that travel influencers produce. Fun TikToks, Instagram stories that take us to far-away places and YouTube videos that take us to hotels across the world are certainly the future of travel content. That said, consumers want to know when the content was made because the influencer was paid by a brand to produce it versus when it is that influencer’s genuine thoughts. This is not just what consumers want; this is the law.