March 14, 2013, 2:03 PM

FTC calls for clearer ads on Twitter and mobile devices

The .com Disclosures guide gives examples of good and bad ad copy.

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Online ads running on small-screen mobile devices and as tweets on Twitter need to clearly reveal disclosures about costs and clarify when tweets are ads and not just personal messages, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced this week in an updated guidance regarding online advertising.

The guidance, “.com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising,” was released on Tuesday and updates the last guidance, “Dot Com Disclosures,” which the agency published in 2000. The new document clarifies that federal law regarding online advertising extends to new forms of advertising media that were not available a decade ago, like Twitter. If not followed, the guidelines could lead to an investigation by the federal agency into whether ads violate the FTC Act, which bars deceptive advertising, the agency says.

“The updated guidance emphasizes that consumer protection laws apply equally to marketers across all mediums, whether delivered on a desktop computer, a mobile device, or more traditional media such as television, radio, or print,” the FTC says in the new guidance.

It adds, “If a disclosure is needed to prevent an online ad claim from being deceptive or unfair, it must be clear and conspicuous. Under the new guidance, this means advertisers should ensure that the disclosure is clear and conspicuous on all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view the ad.”

The new guidance also provides several examples of ad copy that meet FTC guidelines and those that don’t.

In one example of an ad for imitation pearl earrings that appears on a smartphone screen, the FTC notes that the ad correctly places the word “imitation” right next to the word “pearl” in the ad’s headline to ensure that a shopper realizes the pearls are not real without having to scroll or click to view additional content on a small screen.

In another example of an ad appearing on a smartphone screen for “3/4 Ct. Diamond Earrings,” however, the FTC notes that the ad fails to clearly inform shoppers that “diamond weights may not be exact.” Although the ad included a disclosure about the weights, it appeared at the bottom of the page after a long blank space following the text of the ad. “Even consumers who scroll down to the end of the text will probably think that there is no more information to view and are likely to miss the disclosure,” the FTC says.

In an example of a Twitter ad for a weight-loss product, the guidance points out that the tweeted ad lacked two fundamental ingredients: It failed to include a typical weight loss (which a corrected ad included as “1lb/wk,” compared with the 30 pounds over six weeks claimed in the ad) and it used an unclear abbreviation (#Spon) to indicate that the tweet was a sponsored ad. To better indicate that that tweet was an ad, the guidance suggested starting out the tweet with something short but recognizable by consumers, such as “Ad:”

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