As a human who exists on the internet, you’re probably familiar with what it looks like when a celebrity posts something to their social media that is obviously an ad. Like when some C-list reality star poses on Instagram with a bag of diet tea or a UV-light teeth whitener. These kinds of celebrity ads usually have some telltale sign in the form of a hashtag, like #sponsored, #ad, or even just #sp.
But it’s not always obvious, at all. And sometimes its positively confusing. So welcome to a new recurring feature here at BuzzFeed Tech we're calling “Is This An Ad?”
A few years ago, the FTC laid out a set of guidelines for bloggers about disclosing ads or free gifts from brands. Blogs were a radical shift in publishing, and in their early-ish days, many bloggers were making money or getting freebies from brands in exchange for recommending products, with no disclosure. The FTC responded with a set of rules meant to help readers know whether or not posts were, well, ads. Knowing a fashion blogger got that dress she’s wearing in her photo for free makes the motivation to write about it more transparent for the readers. Good!
But these FTC rules are incredibly hard to understand – even the plain English FAQs on its site have a lot of grey. They also pre-date the true rise of social media. (Does anyone actually blog anymore?) Also, these rules aren't really aimed at celebrities – for example, they address issues like getting a free entry to a sweepstakes for blogging about a product. Come on, Beyoncé isn't posting anything in exchange for a freaking sweepstakes entry.
In general, the FTC isn't combing through blogs and social media looking to crack down on individuals. There's only been a handful of actual lawsuits that they brought on, and those were brought against companies, not individuals. The most recent example is Warner Bros., which paid video game vloggers to review a new title. The FTC only went after Warner Bros, not the vloggers personally.
Which is to say that there is not a lot of accountability around surreptitiously advertising a product on Instagram or Snapchat or Snapagram, or whatever. And yet, people are also clearly in love with certain products, and do post about them out of genuine affection — Kim Kardashian's Blackberry comes to mind. So it can be hard to know! Which is why we're trying to regularly answer this a basic question: is this an ad? Welcome to our first installment.
Our first case features the talented and handsome pop star Nick Jonas, and the ride-hailing app Lyft. Jonas is formerly of the mid-aughts Disney act The Jonas Brothers, and more recently of the surprisingly swole and sexy set. He's now an actual mainstream pop star with hits like “Jealous”, does some acting, and is on tour with Demi Lovato this summer.
On July 19, Jonas posted an Instagram where he’s holding a cigar and a cocktail glass poolside at a Hamptons mansion (according to TMZ, this is an Airbnb rental house). The caption reads, “there are days without shows, there are never days off. Thanks for getting me to the Hamptons, @lyft!”
“There are days without shows, there are never days off. Thanks for getting me to the Hamptons, @lyft!”
Now, Nick Jonas doesn’t usually post sponsored ads on his Instagram, which makes it feel less likely that it’s an ad. And it doesn’t say “sponsored” or anything like that. But on the other hand, who shouts out Lyft randomly to thank them? Not us normal folks. And even the premise of it is strange… NYC to the Hamptons is about a 3 hour drive, which isn't really the type of ride Lyft is usually used for.
What if it's just a freebie? Celebrities get free stuff all the time. But that's not even THAT much of a free gift… Lyft's app wouldn't give me a price estimate from NYC to East Hampton, but Uber estimates it's about $220. Is a brand shoutout from Nick Jonas to his 8 million Instagram followers worth a mere $220? Not a bad deal.
It’s really confusing what’s going on here. A paid ad? An organic shoutout? A comped ride?
We asked Lyft what was going on here. Their answer: “Lyft has a relationship with Nick's team and provided him with complimentary services out to the Hamptons.”
So: Nick got a free ride (approximate value: $220). And sometimes he gets free rides other times as well.
We asked the FTC for comment on the case of Nick and his free ride, but they told us that they do no comment on specific examples like this. However, a source familiar with its rules did tell us that it would be a violation because Jonas should have disclosed that it was a free gift.