Should Justin Bieber Have to Disclose When He’s Being Paid to Tweet?

Commentary about business and finance.
June 13 2013 12:53 PM

Tweet Re-#spon-sibly

The FTC is cracking down on celebrities who shill on Twitter.

Canadian singer Justin Bieber performs on stage during the "I Believe Tour" in Helsinki April 26, 2013.
Do you know where Justin Bieber got his Mother's Day flowers? Depends if you follow him on Twitter.

Photo by Mikko Stig/Lehtikuva/Reuters

How do you feel about your Eos lip balm? How do you feel about it knowing, via Twitter, that Kim Kardashian adores her Eos lip balm and smoothes it on her “pregnancy lips”? (Maybe you feel confused about the precise definition of “pregnancy lips”?) Now, how do you feel knowing that Kardashian was likely paid more than $20,000 to tweet about her love of Eos lip balm, even though nothing in the tweet explicitly marks it as an ad?

The Federal Trade Commission feels pretty bad about it. A New York Times article shone a light Sunday both on the rising tide of Twitter celebrity endorsements and on the FTC’s efforts to dog-ear them as such. In March, writer Nick Bilton reports, the agency established a new set of guidelines for disclosing Internet advertising, asking, among other things, that stars append the hashtag #ad to their sponsored tweets. (Business Insider speculates that #spon was too confusing.) Failure to comply might eventually result in a fine. But are celebrities listening—and should they?

Suspiciously glowing recommendations from the elite are everywhere on Twitter. Whether it’s Ashlee Simpson gushing to 2.8 million followers about @GarnierUSA—“my new must-have beauty product. Obsessed”—or Justin Bieber informing 40 million fans where he purchased his Mother’s Day flowers, the online commercial partnerships between stars and companies seem pretty self-evident. Sometimes, the rich and famous unveil their business commitments after the fact: Comedian Michael Ian Black publicly admitted, after a follower called him out on it, that Dos Equis “paid me thousands of dollars to run” a tweet praising the company’s Legend of You app. Other times, it’s up to us plebs to unravel the connection. (Does Miley Cyrus really care that @blackjet airlines flew her to Silicon Valley, rather than, say, USAir? Would a thirsty Hilary Duff just as happily accept a bottle of Volvic or Poland Spring over her “fave,” @FIJIWater?)   

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The Times story quotes National Advertising Division director Andrea C. Levine, who defends the FTC’s new strictness: “It gives [consumers] that additional information, just like a celebrity endorsing something on TV.” Except that celebrities appearing in TV commercials don’t issue disclaimers that they’re getting paid. They don’t have to: No one thinks Beyonce is shilling Pepsi out of the goodness of her heart. My colleague Farhad Manjoo believes that as Twitter chirps its way ever deeper into our lives users will wise up about its commercial applications, making #ads and #spons unnecessary. Of course, some people really do hype products over social media for no other reason than that they like them. Farhad himself is partial to these olives, and Matt Yglesias reports that he was once sent a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey after tweeting kind words about the company. Perhaps genuine fans could find ways to telegraph their sincerity: #notspon? 

Putting the burden of proof on the unpaid olive lovers makes sense, if only because policing every celebrity Twitter feed for FTC violations would prove a gargantuan task. Who even counts as a celebrity? Someone with more than 1 million followers? (The personal trainer Bob Harper has only 400,000, and yet Quaker Oats reached out to him for Twitter promotion.) On the other hand, if the FTC does manage to enforce its regulations, companies have little reason to worry. Products bathed in star power tend to sell whether or not viewers realize the pushers are receiving payment for their services. Spokespeople exist to create positive associations, not bare their souls. Plus, celebrity Twitter feeds are so highly curated that any expectation of authenticity is probably misplaced—unless you’re trailing Amanda Bynes. Still, if you want to believe that Emma Roberts is really “dying over my #CJG #Topshop shoes!,” go ahead! You may be right, and we may be cynical. Or grumpy—a mood that will surely lift when we pour ourselves another cup of this delicious @Folgers office coffee. #yum. 

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

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