Celebrities get lots of free stuff. For big red carpet events like the Emmys, they are given loaner gowns, and the Federal Trade Commission does not demand that each time Ryan Seacrest asks, “Who are you wearing?” he follows up with, “This is an ad, folks.” Magazines work the same way, with a set of institutional rules that most readers probably understand; in March, for instance, when Jennifer Lopez appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in an Oscar de la Renta dress—and inside the pages wore Harry Winston earrings in one photo, and a Valentino gown in another—it was a totally typical fashion editorial spread, featuring donated goods, no disclosures required. But when Lopez posts a photo of a free dress to Instagram, FTC rules stipulate that she must indicate that it’s an ad. This came up as she got ready for the 2017 Met Gala, slipping into a freebee blue Valentino dress. She posted an Instagram photo of herself tagging @Valentino and @HarryWinston, without identifying the post as sponsored content; in response, Public Citizen, an advocacy group, complained to the FTC.
Public Citizen has lodged many grievances with the FTC, compiling a list of 47 other celebrities who have posted undisclosed ads to Instagram. There are tons of violations: Last year, Mediakix, an influencer-focused marketing firm, studied the habits of the top 50 most-followed celebrities on Instagram for a month; of those who posted some form of an ad (and the majority of them did), 93 percent of the ads were not properly disclosed. Of the undisclosed ads, almost half were posted when the celebrity had a long-term sponsorship deal with a company. Often, it’s the biggest celebrities who step on FTC guidelines the most—the more famous you are, the more likely you’re used to getting free things—and it gets blurrier when the people sending you free clothes or expensive face creams become your dear friends to whom you just want to show support and love.
Enter the September issue of Vanity Fair. The cover features Michelle Williams in a demure green sweater and skirt. Thing is, as The New York Times pointed out, this outfit is by Louis Vuitton; Williams is a brand ambassador of Louis Vuitton; and Collier Schorr, the photographer behind the cover, shot the latest Louis Vuitton campaign. You might think that the September issue was just a giant Louis Vuitton ad. Indeed, if Williams, as brand ambassador, posted the same photos on Instagram, FTC rules would have required her to type #sponsored into the post. But Vanity Fair and Louis Vuitton told the Times that it was all mere coincidence. In a traditional magazine, after all, editorial shoots are barely distinguishable from advertisements, apart from the brand’s name. In an email, Schorr told me, “No magazine cares what campaigns the photographer shoots. No brand cares if their associated photographer shoots their actress for a magazine. They only care that it’s on the cover.”
According to Michael Ostheimer, an attorney at the FTC’s division of ad practices, Vanity Fair and Louis Vuitton don’t have to worry about cover stars moonlighting as brand ambassadors. “If the magazines aren’t getting paid or having some sort of other reward for the article, we wouldn’t consider it to be native advertising, we’d consider it editorial content, we wouldn’t hold the magazine itself responsible for any disclosure,” he says. The same would apply to Elle, which in its September issue featured Emma Stone on the cover, and mentioned that Stone is the new face of the latest Louis Vuitton fragrance. In several of the photos she wears—you guessed it—Louis Vuitton. Elle, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue did not reply to requests for comment on how they deal with a cover model or interview subject who happens to also be the face of a fashion brand. But Schorr said it’s a common occurrence. “It’s the actress that is paid to wear something,” she wrote. “The magazine could care less, basically. All actresses make money by wearing fashion.”
For social media, the FTC’s rules are stricter: Use clear language like #sponsored instead of #sp. Don’t use squirrelly industry terms like #partnership. Don’t hide your disclosure at the end of a bunch of tags or after a long caption that cuts off when viewed in the feed. Don’t simply tag the brand. You must disclose any “material relationship” with the brand or product you’re posting about. That includes if you were paid to post about it, were given a free product to review, or received a free products, services, or accommodations. The same applies if you’re a celebrity who has a multi-year endorsement deal with a brand, or even owns part or a whole of a company. This is the part that trips up big celebrities—the kind of people who actually have these big endorsement deals—most frequently. When The Rock posts videos of himself working out while wearing Under Armour, he doesn’t mention he has his own line with that company. Until recently, the FTC has rarely gone after violators, but in April 2017, officials sent a series of letters to 47 celebrities reminding them of the rules. A few months later, they sent harsher letters to 21 of those celebrities, requiring them provide a response detailing their relationship to the brands, including Scott Disick, Naomi Campbell, and Lindsay Lohan, who persisted in posting undisclosed ads.
Most of us may be sensitive to questionable sponcon online, but offline, we tend to be immune to (or willfully ignorant of) the ways in which brands and celebrities are already deeply entangled. This time, however, some Vanity Fair readers, noting the total brand synchronicity, felt duped. Print magazines—particularly fashion magazines—may have a totally different set of rules that favors everyone but the readers when it comes #ad disclosure, but lately, they have been bending and blurring to have more in common with social media, and readers’ perceptions have changed. (This extends even to staff, with editors like Eva Chen of Lucky going to work for Instagram and Vogue’s Selby Drummond going to Snapchat.) The flattening effects of social media, where a designer’s Instagram account appears in the same context, in the same way, as a traditional editorial outlet, dull our ability to tell what’s an ad from what’s simply “content.”
The norms for ads Instagram, YouTube, and the rest are not set in stone yet. The playing field is constantly shifting: Last year, Instagram rolled out a “paid partnership with” label at the top of photos, available to select verified users and brands. The FTC later said that the tool and others like it on YouTube and Facebook made to disclose influencer ads are not sufficient. There’s lots of bad actors on social media, flouting the rules of disclosure, without the institutional ethics historically held by print publications. The influencer industry is rife with fake followers and even, it has been alleged, unscrupulous tactics—like companies paying for negative reviews of competitors. Readers of fashion magazines have always known that there’s some connection between advertising and editorial—and this may be a reason why a brand ambassador like Michelle Williams ends up in her usual designer’s clothes: Other fashion houses don’t want to lend clothes to a star who is associated with another company.
But not everyone understands that the snazzy clothes in magazines are loaners. Recently, a conservative activist criticized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for wearing expensive designer clothes in a magazine. Ocasio-Cortez replied by dunking on him for not knowing that she doesn’t actually own the outfit, and that he “doesn’t understand the concept of magazine shoots.” In a time when social media has blown out our antennae for intuiting what’s an ad and what’s not, perhaps print media could be better served by being transparent about much more.