Annoying sponsored posts by Instagram influencers are getting out of control, and the Federal Trade Commission has noticed. This week, the FTC issued a warning to celebrities, athletes, and other folks with a gazillion followers who are getting paid by companies to promote those brands’ products by acting like they just naturally love them. It’s a practice called “shilling,” and it’s obnoxious.

The aim of the FTC is to promote “free and fair competition in the marketplace,” so it makes sense that they stepped in here; shilling isn’t really fair because it’s not transparent. No one who shills is explicit about the fact that they’re being paid, but there’s a range on Instagram to how brazenly celebrities avoid disclosure.

On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got posts like these, which never let on that they’re technically paid advertisements.

On the other end, you’ve got posts like these, which mention that they’re ads so subtly that you might not even notice — this one includes the hashtag #sp, for “sponsored.”

The FTC isn’t having any of that. In the issued warning, it notes that disclosure information should be included at the beginning of a long caption (so that users don’t need to click “more” to see it) and made “sufficiently clear.” The notice explained that “many consumers will not understand a disclosure like “#sp,” “Thanks [Brand],” or “#partner” in an Instagram post to mean that the post is sponsored.”


The warning came on the back of over 90 letters that the FTC sent to specific Instagram accounts that had been violating these rules. “They mark the first time that FTC staff has reached out directly to educate social media influencers,” it said.

However, except for these harsh words, there really isn’t anything that the FTC can do to stop this practice. There’s no penalty for shilling, or for ignoring the commission’s advice, according to UPI.

So the FTC has done all it can by sending strongly-worded letters, and then adding in a bit of public humiliation with a published warning. But let’s be honest: These influencers clearly feel no personal shame in engaging in crooked marketing, so how much will they really care if people realize it?

Monica Hunter-Hart is a journalist based in New York City. She's originally from Massachusetts, and has written for Paste Magazine, San Francisco Classical Voice, and more.