Q: I have learned to market my agency through social media such as Instagram and Twitter and have developed several thousand followers. I regularly recommend resorts and cruises, including several that have provided me with agent rates and fam trips. To be frank, I also recommend resorts I have never been to or cruise lines that I have never been on but that my colleagues love. Do my posts present any legal problems? If so, how do I overcome those problems?
A: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates deceptive advertising, and it views social media as a form of advertising. In September, it issued guidelines specifically for social media influencers.
The basic guideline is this: "If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship ('material connection') with the brand. A 'material connection' to the brand includes a personal, family or employment relationship or a financial relationship -- such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services."
A travel advisor who endorses the product of a travel supplier clearly has a "material connection" with the supplier because of their financial relationship. If you have such a connection, you must clearly and prominently disclose that fact.
You don't have to explain the details of the relationship or specifically state that you got a discounted or free trip. You can use general language and even hashtags, such as "#ad" or "sponsored," but the FTC cautions that you should not mix your disclosure in with a big list of other hashtags.
However, there is an exception to the general rule: If the readers would ordinarily know of or expect that you have a financial connection, then no further disclosure is necessary about the discount or free trip.
So, the issue in your case is whether your followers would ordinarily know that there is a financial connection between you and the travel suppliers; i.e., whether they know that you are a travel advisor. Here, if most of your followers already know what you do for a living, then no disclosure is needed.
On the other hand, if your Instagram page or Twitter account doesn't describe your position in the travel industry, you need to make clear that there is a financial connection. If you are unsure about whether your followers know what you do for a living, err on the side of disclosure.
The FTC does not give specific guidance about the travel industry or any other industry for which sales agents endorse what they sell, but there is no reason to suspect that any different rules would apply to agents.
There are two other cautions in the guidelines: First, you can't endorse a product that you haven't tried yourself, so plugging a resort that you haven't been to would be deemed a violation. Of course, if you only mention that your colleagues like it, there would be no problem.
Second, you have to be truthful: If you hated the cruise, you can't give the impression that you liked it.