The Freedom of Influencing

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Social media stars and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Act are clashing. Influencer marketing is a preferred way for entertainers, pundits, and everyday people to monetize their audiences and popularity. Manufacturers, service providers, retailers, and advertising agencies leverage influencers to reach into millions or even billions of consumer devices, capturing minutes or seconds of the market’s fleeting attention. FTC enforcement actions and private lawsuits have targeted influencers for failing to disclose the nature of a sponsorship relationship with a manufacturer, marketer, or service provider. Such a failure to disclose payments prominently is very common in Hollywood films and on radio and television, however. The Code of Federal Regulations, FTC notices, and press releases contain exemptions tailored to such legacy media. This Article addresses whether the disparate treatment of social media influencers and certain legacy media formats may amount to a content-based regulation of speech that violates the freedom of speech. Drawing on intellectual property law, consumer law, and securities law precedents, it argues that the more intense focus on disclosures by social media influencers infringes the freedom of influencing. It is irrational and discriminatory to impose greater obligations on influencers who are paid to mention or use products or services than on legacy media formats whose actors or directors mention or use similar products or services.