Social media influencers are the celebrities of the internet age, with their every movement watched closely by followers and media alike. This can have its advantages and disadvantages, as just recently a well-known influencer in Taiwan was fined by the Taipei City Department of Health for posting a review of an at-home cervical cancer test kit. The government determined that her behavior constituted advertising of a product with a medical purpose that had not received the necessary regulatory approvals. This incident gives one pause to reflect, if posting a written or video review of a product online can be construed as a form of advertising, how should consumers view articles or videos posted by influencers? Are they merely natural observations made by the influencer about certain products, or do they indicate some sort of partnership between the influencer and the companies behind those products? Also, if the influencer uses a less conspicuous approach to advertise a product in an online review, how can consumers’ rights and market order be safeguarded? This article will take a closer look at these questions from a legal point-of-view.
Disclosure of Material Connections in American Law
In order to address this new method of product promotion, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 2009 amended the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, adding posts and reviews made on social media to its regulatory scope. These amendments provide that if there is a material relationship between the poster and the producer or provider of the goods or services being reviewed, this could impact the credibility of the review and the poster must therefore provide a “Disclosure of Material Connections.” For example, when posting on social media, the poster can use hashtags, such as “#ad” or “#sponsored”, to indicate the nature of the post. On top of this, the producer or provider must also guarantee that such disclosure obligations are fulfilled. That being said, are there similar regulations and applications in Taiwan?
The obligation to disclose material relationships of endorsers and advertisers under Taiwanese law
Taiwan’s current laws and regulations do not contain anything specifically directed at the sharing of experiences by influencers or celebrities. However, if such sharing involves the influencer or celebrity’s opinions, trust, discovery, or personal experience with respect to a product or service, this could fall under the scope of an “endorsement/testimonial” provided in the Fair Trade Act (FTA).
The “Statement on the Fair Trade Commission’s Directions Regarding Advertising Endorsement and Testimonials” (hereinafter “Endorsements and Testimonials Statement”) clarifies these concepts, explaining that the terms “endorsements/testimonials” not only refer to those commercial endorsements made by celebrities, but also include experience sharing by average consumers. Moreover, “endorser” as regulated under the FTA, refers to an individual or organization who offers their reflection on a product or service, or their personal experience using that product or service. Therefore, anyone from a well-known personality, to a professional individual or organization, to an average consumer, can be considered an “endorser”. Given this, if an influencer or celebrity shares their experience with or opinions on a certain product or service with the public and such behavior is advertising in nature and is likely to affect market order and consumer interests, it will be governed by the provisions of the FTA.
Because fans and consumers are savvy to the interests and recommendations made by influencers and celebrities and purchase products and services based on these, this therefore represents their trust in the personal experience such influencers or celebrities have had with the recommended products or services. If it were to come to light that an influencer or celebrity was receiving free products or services from the producing company, or if there was another material relationship between the two, this could possibly affect consumers’ desire to purchase the product.
According to the “Truthful Representations Principle” described in the Endorsements and Testimonials Statement, if a “material relationship between the endorser and the advertiser that cannot be reasonably expected by the general public” exists, such a relationship should be fully disclosed in the testimonial. If it is not disclosed, depending on the particulars of each case, the testimonial could be considered a false or misleading representation relevant to goods or services sufficient to influence trading decisions, and thus be in violation of Article 21 of the FTA. It could otherwise be deemed a violation of the blanket provision regarding unfair practices in Article 25.
In addition, the “Obligation to Disclose Material Relationships” is specifically discussed in Point 5 of the Endorsements and Testimonials Statement. This item explicitly states that if an endorsement or testimonial is posted on social network websites (including online blog posts and posts in forums), any material relationship between the endorser and the advertiser that cannot be reasonably expected by the general public, which is not fully disclosed in the advertisement, and is sufficient to affect trading order, is in violation of Article 25 of the FTA.
We can better understand the term “material relationship that cannot be reasonably expected by the general public” by taking a look at the 2013 incident in which it came to light that the Taiwan subsidiary of South Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung was paying Taiwanese netizens to post negative online review and comments about HTC products on message boards and blogs, scrub the internet of negative news and reviews regarding Samsung’s products, and contrast Samsung’s products with those of their most prominent competitors by highlighting the deficiencies of the competitors’ products. Because consumers viewing these message boards and blogs would assume that the posts were the opinions or recommendations of average consumers like themselves, they would be unable to reasonably expect that there was a material relationship between the poster and the company. That these facts were concealed by Samsung significantly affected the credibility of the posts, and given Samsung’s long-term use of this particular approach, the FTC fined the company NT$10 million (approximately US$320,000) as a warning.
Influencers and celebrities should timely disclose their material relationships with companies
In order to maintain the impression of neutrality, and boost the credibility of their online posts, influencers and celebrities recommending certain products or services will frequently downplay the material relationship they have with the providers of those products or services. However, when there is such a relationship between the two sides, the articles, pictures, or videos posted are no longer purely experience sharing, and are rather closer to advertisements in nature. Given this, the FTA specifically includes experience sharing by celebrities or average consumers in the scope of “endorsements and testimonials,” and requires that any material relationship between the experience sharer and the company behind the product or service that cannot be reasonably expected by the general public be disclosed.
A great number of consumers are accustomed to buying products or perusing services based on the tastes and preferences of influencers or celebrities they follow online. Accordingly, if these tastemakers do not sufficiently disclose their material relationships with companies whose products or services they are reviewing, average consumers may go out and make purchases based on the mistaken belief that such reviews were made objectively in good faith. Based on previous cases, influencers or celebrities that conceal such relationships could be punished by the FTC if it is determined that the concealment is severe enough to affect market order. Moreover, if it is determined that they clearly knew or were capable of knowing that their endorsement or testimonial is misleading but still made it, the influencer and the company could also be held jointly and severally liable for civil damages.
Therefore, to reduce any possible legal risk and safeguard the trust fans and followers have in their idols, influencers and celebrities should disclose any material relationships they have.
Written May 13, 2019 By Ling-ying Hsu.