We all knew that one day the government would catch up with this thing called "social media." It was only a matter of time.
Advertising as we know it has been around since the 19th century, so it makes sense that the government heavily regulates that industry. For example, any tobacco advertisement must have the "THIS PRODUCT MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS" statement, which has changed over the years and has been much debated. The same with alcohol and drugs.
The Internet has been around only since the mid-1900s, and the government has caught up with it in terms of regulating alcohol and tobacco. On the Web, alcoholic beverage and tobacco sites make you "confirm your age" before you enter them. As if that matters: anyone can lie about their age online. Regardless, such sites are required to put in that extra step to deter minors from visiting their websites.
What about social media? Social sites have really been around only for the last 10-20 years, depending on what you think is social media and what isn't. Marketers immediately started using social media because, in most cases, it's free and it's where people (marketers' current and potential clientele) are spending their time.
But social media is different from traditional advertising in that you don't have to (usually) pay for your space. So it's somewhat surprising that the TTB, FDA, and FTC are starting to consider it a type of advertising.
What are the TTB, FDA, and FTC?
The TTB ensures that the "government warning" is on all wine labels and beer bottles. It tells you how large the text must be, where it must be placed, which state and country it originated from, and on what date it was produced.
In May 2013, the TTB released an Industry Circular stating that social media for alcoholic beverages will now be considered a form of advertising and therefore must comply with the advertising rules (with some exceptions).
For example, a Facebook page will need to have "mandatory statements" in the "about" section, but not necessarily in every single post. If a different social media page is linked in a post and that page is not compliant with the TTB rules, the owner of the Facebook might be held responsible.
For more on these new TTB regulations, see the end of this article.
The FDA makes sure you don't call your product fat-free if it contains more than 0.5 g of fat per serving (for example). The FTC enforces those laws. The FTC sends you those nasty "cease and desist" letters if your Facebook page is not in compliance with the laws.
So if you're running a Facebook page for a dietary supplement or some type of drug, you're not the average Facebook page (just as those for alcohol and tobacco aren't). Other pages, such as a restaurant page or cookie company, are not subject to the same laws. On social media, if you're acting as the page owner, you cannot "like" or "up-vote" or "favorite" any fan statement that is in violation of the rules.
For example, if a fan made a claim, such as "your product saved my life!"—you cannot "like" that post because it'd be as if you are endorsing the fan's claim. However, the page owner is not held accountable for things other people post unless the page endorses it. As the page owner, you cannot make claims like "our product will make you healthy or strong or live longer," because technically those are against FDA regulations.
So what does all this mean?
The TTB and other government agencies are starting to catch on to social media (albeit slowly).
How they plan to monitor the social media pages of all companies is still in the air, but as with anything social-media related, it's better to be safe than sorry.
"Because TTB considers industry member fan pages for alcohol beverages to be advertisements, all mandatory statements required by the regulations (in §§ 4.62, 5.63, and 7.52) must be included on them. TTB views the entire fan page (i.e., the "home" page and all sub or tabbed pages directly associated with the "home" page) as one advertisement, so mandatory statements need only appear once on the fan page, either on the "home" page or on any sub or tabbed pages directly associated with the "home" page. The regulations require that mandatory statements on alcohol beverage advertisements be: (1) conspicuous and readily legible; (2) clearly a part of the advertisement; and (3) readily apparent to the persons viewing the advertisement. Thus, mandatory statements may not be hidden or buried in an obscure location on the fan page."
§ 4.62 Mandatory statements:
(a) Responsible advertiser. The advertisement shall state the name and address of the permittee responsible for its publication or broadcast. Street number and name may be omitted in the address.
(b) Class, type, and distinctive designation. The advertisement shall contain a conspicuous statement of the class, type, or distinctive designation to which the product belongs, corresponding with the statement of class, type, or distinctive designation which is required to appear on the label of the product.
(c) Exception. (1) If an advertisement refers to a general wine line or all of the wine products of one company, whether by the company name or by the brand name common to all the wine in the line, the only mandatory information necessary is the name and address of the responsible advertiser. This exception does not apply where only one type of wine is marketed under the specific brand name advertised. (2) On consumer specialty items, the only information necessary is the company name or brand name of the product.
[T.D. 6521, 25 FR 13835, Dec. 29, 1960, as amended by T.D. ATF-180, 49 FR 31672, Aug. 8, 1984]