In May of 2023, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) released an article warning consumers of potential health risks associated with artificial sweeteners, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Soon after, at least thirty-five posts with the hashtag #safetyofaspartame appeared on social media. Interestingly, the posts were made by several influencers using their clout on social media and expertise as registered dieticians to discredit the WHO’s “fear-mongering headlines.” The registered dieticians labeled the WHO article as “clickbait” founded on “low-quality science,” so users should not be concerned about consuming their favorite diet sodas and low-calorie sweeteners.
While these healthcare professional influencers made their stance on the consumption of aspartame abundantly clear, they were cryptic about the real reason for the posts. Turns out, the posts were sponsored by the American Beverage Association - a trade and lobby group comprised of the country’s largest beverage companies, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Monster. Although many influencers did include #ad or #paidpartnership in their posts, only 11 out of 35 posts mentioned American Beverage by name, a seemingly intentional attempt to hide the partnership.
When asked about the sponsorships, American Beverage defended the influencers by stating that the inclusion of the hashtag #safetyofaspartame or website safetyofaspartame.com was sufficient disclosure because, if followers decided to visit the website, the American Beverage logo was included at the bottom of the page. However, this argument rests on two significant assumptions. First, it assumes that users would be curious or concerned enough to question the registered dietician’s advice and pursue research on their own. Second, it assumes that users are tech-savvy enough to navigate through two websites to determine who is behind American Beverage. If users begin their search from the social media posts themselves, they must go on an online scavenger hunt that requires clicking at least three different times on obscure links just to reach the list of corporations that are part of American Beverage.
The Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) guidelines instruct influencers to “make it obvious when [they] have a relationship with [a] brand” so that consumers can weigh and understand the value of endorsements. These guidelines attempt to clarify the responsibility of influencers receiving endorsements to prevent breaking United States law against deceptive advertising. An attorney for the FTC’s division of advertising practices said a key test to determine deceptive advertising is “whether the sponsorship would surprise consumers and affect their opinion of the message’s credibility.” Here, even the posts that mention the American Beverage company by name still do not make it apparent that the partnership was between a dietician and key players in the beverage industry, an unexpected partnership that greatly impacts the credibility of the information.
For years, studies have shown that endorsements by experts in a product area are highly effective in reducing risk perceptions because people believe that experts are more credible. A neuroscience research study determined that persuasion by celebrity experts positively impacts areas of the brain involving trustful behavior and memory of the object being endorsed. As a result, the FTC developed specific guidelines for expert endorsements in advertising in 2009, which specifically note the importance of their enforcement for weight loss and healthcare supplements. Fortunately, the FTC updated its Expert Endorsements and Disclosure guidelines on October 25, 2023, to specifically apply to influencers and social media posts. The specific expert guidelines and overall endorsement guidelines provide helpful hypothetical situations that demonstrate the responsibilities of expert influencers and sponsoring corporations to adequately provide partnership information to social media users.
Regardless of who is right in the aspartame health debate, the #safetyofaspartame posts highlight the potential danger of experts, such as registered dieticians, using their specialized knowledge to influence users on social media. The guidelines solidify what is clear, that American Beverage and the registered dieticians using the hashtag #safetyofaspartame did not adequately disclose their relationship, placing the health of social media users at risk. It is unknown whether the FTC will impose fines or pursue other action in this situation, but moving forward, it is in the public’s interest that they do so.
Ashton is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. Before law school, Ashton attended Washington and Lee University where she majored in Anthropology and Biology and minored in Poverty and Human Capabilities studies. After graduation, Ashton plans on practicing civil litigation.
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