Not Even The FTC Knows What Exactly #Spon Looks Like

The Federal Trade Commission recently went after 47 celebrities and brands for violating its rules on sponsored Instagrams. But many of them weren't even actually ads.

The FTC recently sent letters to brands and celebrities to remind them of the rules about posting Instagram ads.

We tend to think of Instagram ads as those really obvious ones for diet teas or teeth whiteners. But this list shows there’s a much broader definition of an ad, at least according to the FTC, which considers any “material relationship” with a product to be an ad.

This could be that you are getting paid to post it, or that you got free merch, or that you’re a part owner of a brand or have some other financial stake. There's a lot of gray area.

That’s why we’re posting all the Instagrams that the FTC sent letters about — so that you can see what types of posts they actually consider to be undisclosed ads.

In its announcement about the letters, the FTC acknowledged that it had not fact-checked the ads in question. "The staff’s letters were sent in response to a sample of Instagram posts making endorsements or referencing brands," the commission wrote. "In sending the letters, the staff did not predetermine in every instance whether the brand mention was in fact sponsored, as opposed to an organic mention."

BuzzFeed News attempted to fact-check these by reaching out to the brands to ask if the celebrity was paid or got a freebie. What we found is that there were lots of different kinds of ads — sometimes the celeb was part owner of a brand or got free stuff. Or maybe it was an ad, but they didn't disclose it the right way — either they made no attempt to disclose it at all, or they tried but didn't get it quite right.

In a few instances, it turned out that the FTC got it wrong — the "ad" wasn’t an ad at all.

This just goes to show that if the FTC can't tell from looking at an Instagram post if something is an ad or not — and when a media outlet called up the brand to ask, we still couldn't find an answer — how the heck are normal people supposed to know when something is an ad??


1. Shay Mitchell (Kettle chips)

Kettle confirmed to BuzzFeed News that this is NOT an ad — the company has no relationship with the Pretty Little Liars actor and had no idea she was posting this. She clearly just happened to be eating a bag of Kettle chips when she took this pic.

2. Sophia Bush (Sakara, an organic-food delivery service)

Sakara confirmed that the Chicago Fire actor is just a regular paying customer; she didn't get any thing free, nor was she paid.

[Note: She later expanded her caption to explain her food choices in response to fans saying she should eat more food, not questioning whether or not the post is an ad.]

3. Nicky Jam (Adidas)

deleted instagram

First of all, Adidas doesn't make knitted baby booties, so these weren't a free product they gave the reggaeton singer. These are from a Spanish company called Romeo Babe that makes knitted versions of real sneakers. The photo is taken from their website.

Nicky Jam's manager told BuzzFeed News that someone tagged him in a photo of the shoes on Instragram, and Nicky simply thought they were cute, so he reposted it. No endorsement or free shoes from Adidas or Romeo Babe. Just the pure love of an adult man for some cute baby shoes.

4. Kristin Cavallari (LORAC and Chanel makeup)

deleted instagram

LORAC confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it did not send her free products or have any endorsement deal with her. Chanel did not respond to a request for comment.

It makes sense that this isn't an ad, since she has three different beauty brands (LORAC, Chanel, and Oribe) in the same shot.


5. Caroline Manzo (HelloFresh food-box delivery)

Yes, this was an ad, and the Real Housewives of New Jersey star is a paid spokesperson. But Manzo only put #sp at the end. The FTC says #sp isn't clear enough.

HelloFresh told BuzzFeed News: "HelloFresh values transparency and clarity when it comes to working with our social media influencers. We've implemented a social media policy that emphasizes the best practices laid out by the FTC, and disseminated the information throughout our organization. Additionally, we compiled a number of resources, which we share with each influencer we onboard in order to comply with all disclosure requirements disseminated by the FTC."

Shay Mitchell (Bioré)

Shay is a "Bioré ambassador" — she tags other Instragram posts with #BioreAmbassador. This one isn't tagged.

But even if she DID use the tag #BioreAmbassador, the FTC thinks that isn't clear enough. Most people don't understand exactly what an "ambassador" means, even if they could probably guess this is some sort of an ad.

6. Ashley Benson (Nip + Fab)

Ashley has now deleted this post. You can see she uses the hashtag #sp, but the FTC doesn't think that #sp is clear enough — they want you to write out the full hashtag #sponsored.

7. Giuliana Rancic (Compeed blister bandages)


The E! News host uses the hashtag #partner at the end of her post, but the FTC doesn't think the term "partner" is clear enough. Also, if this was in your feed, the caption would get cut off by the [...] after three lines, and no one would see the #partner anyway. They want the ad disclosure to be clear and before the [...].

8. Jenni "JWoww" Farley (FabFitFun)

9. Jamie Lynn Spears (FabFitFun)

#fffpartner isn't enough for the FTC guidelines; sorry, Jamie Lynn!


10. Tiona Fernan (Flat Tummy Tea)

Flat Tummy Tea is familiar to everyone on Instagram for doing tons and tons of influencer ads. They didn't respond to requests, but a rep for Tiona was confused when asked about the letter (the FTC sent one via email, and the rep says they never received it).

In this photo, she doesn't have a caption at all; she's just posing with the stuff.

11. Snooki (Flat Tummy Tea)

Simply tagging @flattummytea at the end of the post just isn't enough, according to the FTC.

12. Emily Ratajkowski (Nip + Fab pads)

NOTE: Ratajkowski has updated the caption on her post — now it includes "#ad." Originally, it just read:

"Thanks @nipandfab for these insane glycolic night fix pads. Ready for my bday week @cvspharmacy @mrsrodial #nipandfab"

The company did not respond to a request for comment, but considering she updated the post, it's pretty fair to say she was doing an ad. And it's probably likely that Ashley Benson, who was posting about the same product but deleted her post, was also doing an ad.

13. Rach Parcell (EOS)

Here's the old caption (no #ad) vs. new caption (#ad, but still not FTC compliant):

14. Naomi Campbell (Clean cleanse program)

Instagram (deleted)

Clean cleanse did not reply to a request for comment. The supermodel has now deleted this post.

15. Lindsay Lohan (Pinnertest)

The Pinnertest here is a test for "food sensitivities." BuzzFeed recently exposed that the science behind this test is dubious at best. Still, the test advertises with a lot of celebrities (Mario Lopez and one of the Real Housewives, for example). Lohan's post does not disclose at all.

16. Maci Bookout McKinney (Flat Belly Tea)

17. Vanessa Hudgens (Graze snacks)

Hudgens simply uses the hashtag #GrazeSnacks, which isn't even close to an advertising disclosure. Graze did not reply to requests for comment.

18. Scott Disick (Pearly Whites Australia)

One of the greatest moments in #spon history was when Scott Disick accidentally copy/pasted the entire email that told him what the caption should say for his ad, not just the ad copy. Lord Disick is no stranger to the pleasures of teeth whitening ads, and here is a prime example.

19. Chelsea Houska (Love With Food box)

The Teen Mom 2 star has deleted this photo, but you can see in the comments in the screenshot that one fan is discussing the fact that this post clearly seems to be advertising. The other comments, though, are actually people asking about the snack box — which means it's pretty effective advertising.

Vanessa Hudgens (Hasbro/My Little Pony)

Original caption vs. current caption:

20. Lilly Ghalichi (HAIRtamin)

The woman in the photo is NOT the woman who posted this. It was posted by Lilly Ghalichi, a former star of the reality show Shahs of Sunset and a makeup artist with her own line of false eyelashes. She reposted a photo of some other Instagram model who was doing an ad, while doing an ad herself. Sneaky!

Ghalichi just got married, and her wedding photos on Instragram are chock-full of sponsor tags for various wedding-related items, but the posts don't indicate whether or not she received any items or services for free.

21. Valentina Vignali (Hairburst)

Valentina Vignali is an Italian professional basketball player/model, and this is definitely an ad.

22. Nina Agdal (Muscle Milk)

The fashion model clearly seems to be doing an ad and just tagging the sponsor. LOOK AT ALL THE TAGGED SPONSORS!

23. James Harrison (Optimum EFX supplements)

Deleted instagram

This is clearly some type of ad — he gives his promo code. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers' linebacker was one of two celebrities who did NOT post any new ads at all in the six weeks after receiving their first FTC letters. I do highly recommend Harrison's Instagram, because it's almost entirely his bonkers workout in the gym, and it's really fun to watch his videos.


24. Bella Thorne (Puma)

Bella tags @Puma and @wantmylook in her image here. We reached out to Puma to find out if she received freebies or was paid to post — it's unclear.

25. Zendaya (Puma)

26. Jen Selter (Adidas)

Jen Selter is a fitness model known for, well, having a great butt. She wears Nike sneakers in other Instagrams, so it's highly unlikely she's an official Adidas spokesperson, but it's *possible* she got this shirt for free. She tags @Adidas in the photo, but perhaps she's just thinks it looks cool?

Adidas and Selter didn't return requests for comment.

27. Ciara (Buscemi shoes)

28. Dorothy Wang (Buscemi shoes)

29. Lucy Hale (Chiara Ferragni shoes)

Lucy Hale (We the Dreamers clothing)

The Pretty Little Liars actor has since deleted this post. She originally wrote, "thank you @katevoegele for my pants! (and @danielsarahdib) get yours @wtdreamers." Kate Voegele is the owner of the clothing line We the Dreamers, which makes the pineapple pants. I can't imagine it's clear to the average person that she's thanking the brand's owner and not just a friend who gave her a gift.

30. Sofia Vergara (Dana Rebecca jewelry)

No reply from this jewelry company, but probably a free gift.

31. Allen Iverson (IO Moonwalkers hoverboards)

A phone number for IO Moonwalkers was disconnected, and they did not return email requests for comment. Iverson's caption suggests that he at least got a free board, but it's unclear if he was compensated beyond that.

The basketball star was one of only two celebrities on this list who did not post any ads since receiving the letter back in March. Which is probably a good thing, since he doesn't exactly make the most enthusiastic spokesperson based on this photo.

32. Behati Prinsloo (Josie Maran cosmetics)

33. Lisa Rinna (ToGoSpa)


34. Denice Moberg (Nutramino supplements)

35. Anna Petrosian (Kat Von D makeup)

Anna Petrosian is a makeup artist with a big following. A rep for Kat Von D cosmetics couldn't recall if they had specifically sent her free merchandise, but said that sending samples of their latest products to prominent makeup artists to try out was a standard practice.

36. Victoria Beckham (Lancer makeup)

37. Amber Rose (Fred and Far jewelry)

38. Troian Bellisario (Matisse footwear)

39. Vanessa Lachey (YSL cosmetics)


40. Diddy (AQUAhydrate water)

Diddy is partial owner of this bottled water company, kind of like how he owns Cîroc vodka. This is kind of tricky. On one hand, I think most fans aren't really confused here that he owns this and is aggressively promoting it. On the other, the FTC wants people to be crystal clear when they have a monetary relationship to a product they're promoting on social media. So yeah, while this is not exactly spon, he probably should've said #ad.

41. Farrah Abraham (Teespring)

This is confusing because Teespring is a site where you can make your own line of T-shirts to sell. (You provide the design, Teespring makes the shirts, and you split the cash.)

So is she advertising her own "Momtreprenuer" designs that just happen to be made through Teespring? Or did Teespring ask her to post this? Since Teespring didn't answer requests for clarification, I have no idea.

42. Heidi Klum (Dunkin' Donuts)

  1. POLL: Does this count as an ad?

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POLL: Does this count as an ad?
    vote votes
    Yes, because she's aware the company is a sponsor for the show, even though it doesn't pay her directly.
    vote votes
    No, she isn't being paid to post this.

43. Jennifer Lopez (Beluga Vodka)

  1. What do you think J.Lo and Beluga Vodka's deal is?

Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later
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What do you think J.Lo and Beluga Vodka's deal is?
    vote votes
    Beluga footed the bill for her party, and in exchange she posted this.
    vote votes
    The company gave her free vodka for the party, PLUS some $$$ to create this post.

44. Akon (Beluga Vodka)

(deleted from Instagram)

45. Luke Bryan (Cabela's sporting goods)

Cabela's did not return calls about this, but Bryan deleted this Instagram. He's since posted other Instagrams that make it clear that Cabela's is a sponsor of his tour — a material relationship that he probably should've disclosed.

46. Massy Arias (Shea Moisture)

47. Kourtney Kardashian (Popeyes)

Popeyes did not reply, but this is a genuine head-scratcher to me. On one hand, it looks fairly casual, and maybe they just love some bad fast food. It's not tagged, and they just mention the brand name. On the other hand, do Kardashians ever post anything for free?


The names Lilly Ghalichi, Rach Parcell, Emily Ratajkowski, Kate Voegele, Troian Bellisario, and Rihanna were misspelled in an earlier version of this post.