Welcome to “Is This an Ad?,” a column in which we take a celebrity social media post about a brand or product and find out if they’re getting paid to post about it or what. Because even though the FTC recently came out with rules on this, it’s not always clear. Send a tip for ambiguous tweets or 'grams to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have Mindy Kaling, comedian, best-selling author, and writer, star, and creator of The Mindy Project.
And then Casper, a startup that sells reasonably priced mattresses. They’re foam, so they can be folded up and shipped in a neat little box.
On Jan. 13, 2017, Kaling posted an Instagram of herself with a box from the mattress company, saying something sort of confusing about how it’s cold so she needed a new mattress, and “thanks to my friends @Casper.”
Let’s start with the tangible evidence. The post is actually split of two photos, one where she is smiling at the camera, the second where she is examining the box. She’s wearing a winter jacket inside, which is not typical for receiving a new mattress and opens even more questions — did she just come in and find the box waiting for her, and took photos in a rush of glee before removing her coat? Or does the coat suggest she’s somewhere other than home — say, the Casper showroom? This one goes deep.
But let’s take a step back and think about who the parties are here. Mindy Kaling is not the kind of celebrity who is prone to posting ads for detox tea or tooth whiteners on her Instagram. She’s an A-list television actress who can definitely afford her own mattress and has a main job (making a TV show) that isn’t about leveraging her social media presence.
Also, Kaling is an enthusiast of things. I am admittedly a big Mindy Kaling fan and I find this aspect of her endearing and charming. Some stars, like Beyoncé, have a highly manicured social media presence, and if you see a product or brand in there, it’s likely not just “Hey, this is what I’m eating right now.” Kaling uses Instagram more like a plebeian, capturing lots of casual moments on the fly, and like the rest of us, brands are woven into her life. When she Instagrams herself at her family’s home holding a tub of Friendly’s ice cream, we don’t assume that’s an ad from Friendly’s. We assume that she is fondly remembering the regional New England ice cream brand of her youth, just like the rest of us do when we go home for the holidays and pig out on the kinds of junk food our parents keep around.
When she photographs herself posing on some suitcases outside the luxury brand Goyard store in Manhattan with the caption “Photo taken quickly before the store owner could tell what I was doing,” we believe that she was just goofing around with friends on a walk, not that she’s a paid spokesperson for Goyard. Because posing surreptitiously in front of a weird store display is something the rest of us would totally do. People love Mindy Kaling because she's very relatable — she feels like she could be one of your friends, and her social media reflects that. She is, as they say, just like us.
And yet... Are we really to believe that she just happened to order a mattress and then Instagrammed it? And the caption “thanks to my friends at @Casper” — that implies it’s a gift, right? Or could the “thanks” just be thanking them for excellent customer service?
While representatives for Mindy told me she was unable to comment since she was in production, Casper did respond.
Turns out, Casper and Kaling really are “friends.” Well, sort of. A Casper rep told me, “Mindy is a Casper employee's roommate's friend's boss. She's also one of our favorite comedians.” Did you get that? Here, I made a chart for you:
But did she get it free? Yup. According to Casper, “We heard she was interested in buying a mattress and we were happy to gift her new beds.”
Wait, beds plural? How many exactly did she receive? Her photo seem to suggest it was just one bed, photographed twice. But Casper confirmed the gift was actually two beds. This means the gift had a retail value of $1,100–$2,200, depending on the size of the beds.
The FTC rules about disclosing ads on social media posts dictate that a gift of goods is akin to cash compensation, so any related post should be marked as an #ad (or something like #ad, #sponsored, etc). Though the FTC claims that it’s clear on this rule, in practice, it’s the most frequently ignored. Celebrities have been getting free shit since time immemorial (I imagine Jesus got lots of free sandals). Considering Mindy Kaling is an A-list star who has probably gotten free clothes and swag for years, the minutiae of FCC rules originally meant for bloggers isn’t top of mind.
Kaling’s original caption (“thanks to my friends”) is ambiguous. Sure, there’s a connotation that it was a free gift, but it’s phrased in really obscure terms – you have to know the freebie dialect to read between the lines.
The fans are getting wise to this. In the comments of Kaling’s post, someone clearly calls her out for not using #sponsored or #ad, against the FCC rules. But you’ll notice in the comments that… it’s also clearly working for Casper, regardless of whether or not it’s an ad. Mindy Kaling fans are chatting with each other about Casper mattresses — one person has some of her own and recommends them, another asks if they’re really too firm, other people say how they want to get one. This, my friends, is exactly why Casper gave two free mattresses to a celebrity.
When Casper replied to me about whether they were a free gift, they also wrote that they now realized that the Instagram caption was ambiguous and were going to reach out to Kaling to change it. Now the caption reads, “Thanks @Casper for the gift!”
Impact, my friends. Impact.
The chart showing the relationship between Mindy Kaling and Casper has been corrected to reflect who the Casper employee was in relation to Mindy's employee (friend's roommate rather than roommate's friend). Dang, this was confusing as hell.