In a lot of ways, unlikely presidential debate star Ken Bone is a marketer’s dream. He is undecided on his political leanings (for now), inoffensive, instantly recognizable, and affable on TV and social media.
So it makes sense that Uber asked him to send a promotional tweet for this week’s launch of Uber’s black car uberSELECT service in St. Louis, site of the debate Sunday night that launched him to fame.
But there’s one problem: Bone may have violated Federal Trade Commission guidelines for advertising on social media by not marking his tweet as an ad or mentioning that Uber paid him for making the tweet. (The promo code, in case you’re wondering: KENBONE.)
“[The tweet] needs to disclose that he was compensated,” said lawyer Rick Kurnit, of Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein + Salz PC. “He and Uber are in violation of FTC guidelines, because Uber is also responsible for what their influencers do.”
The guidelines that Kurnit is referencing are pretty straightforward, and the FTC offers specific advice for how to craft sponsored posts on Twitter.
“The FTC isn’t mandating the specific wording of disclosures,” an FTC guidelines FAQ states. “However… the words ‘Sponsored’ and ‘Promotion’ use only 9 characters. ‘Paid ad’ only uses 7 characters. Starting a tweet with ‘Ad:’ or ‘#ad’ – which takes only 3 characters – would likely be effective.”
Kurnit added that while the FTC “doesn’t like” using simple hashtags for disclosures, he agrees that it might have sufficed.
“My own feeling is shame on Uber that they didn’t tell [Bone],” Kurnit said.
VICE News reached out to Bone over Twitter and left a message on Bone’s grandmother’s voicemail. He did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
When VICE News initially reached out to Uber asking whether Bone was paid for the tweet, a spokesperson said the company is “providing him with Uber credit for his role in the launch.”
An Uber representative did not immediately respond to an additional request for comment when asked about the tweet and FTC guidelines.
FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz declined to comment on Bone’s tweet, citing the FTC’s policy against discussing any individual cases (whether ongoing or hypothetical).
And although Bone and Uber wouldn’t be fined for violating the FTC Act (Section 5 of which prohibits “deceptive advertising”), the guidelines say that “law enforcement actions can result in orders requiring the defendants in the case to give up money they received from their violations.”
“If we take an action against a company or individual, we do issue a press release in every instance,” Katz said.
Update: A few hours after this article was published, Ken Bone deleted his promotional tweet for Uber and issued an apology.