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Cole Haan Gets Slapped with FTC Notice for Pinterest Contest

Fashion brand Cole Haan’s past contest on Pinterest has elicited a notice from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which claims the retailer’s “Wandering Sole” promotion counts as misleading advertising content.

Cole Haan’s contest rules required that participants create boards titled, “Wandering Sole” on Pinterest, the social media site where people can save and organize images known as “pins” in collections called “boards.”

Each board also had to include five shoe images re-pinned from Cole Haan’s own Wandering Sole board, plus five images of the contestants’ favorite places to wander. Pinner were instructed to use a #WanderingSole hashtag in the pin descriptions (clicking a hashtag in a pin’s description returns results of other pins that include that hashtag and pins that include the same word or phrase in the description) and Cole Haan would award the most creative contestant with a $1,000 shopping spree.

But this did not go over well with the FTC.

The agency issued a letter to a Cole Haan lawyer on March 20, which said the participants’ pins featuring Cole Haan products were brand endorsements and that the company did not instruct contestants to label their pins in a way that made it clear they had pinned the Cole Haan products as part of a contest.

“We do not believe that the “#WanderingSole” hashtag adequately communicated the financial incentive- a material connection- between contestants and Cole Haan,” Mary K. Engle, FTC associate director for the Division of Advertising Practices, wrote in the letter.

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What the FTC really wants is for brands to make anything in this realm very overt so there’s no concern about blurred lines. Pinterest users should not have been allowed to think the Cole Haan products were pinned organically if, in fact, they were pinned because of a financial incentive or as part of a marketing campaign.

The FTC decided against enforcing action on the issue because the contest wasn’t wide-reaching and Cole Haan has since adopted a social media policy that addresses adequate disclosure concerns.

But the warning stands to have a major impact on the way brands interact with users on social media sites. If it isn’t clear and fully disclosed that followers are sharing something solely because of a chance to win money, that is deceptive, the FTC says.

It’s easy to blur the line between a brand simply engaging with its followers on social media and what the FTC views as inauthentic content and has been battling to quell over the last few years.

Eric Goldman, a professor of Internet and advertising law at Santa Clara University School of Law and a contributor to Forbes brought the Cole Haan issue to light in a Twitter post over the weekend.

Goldman has voiced a view that the FTC is waging a losing battle and is only getting in the way of a brand and its loyal consumers.

In a Forbes article last year, Goldman said, “Unfortunately, the FTC is running a fool’s errand.  It’s often difficult to distinguish ‘content’ from ‘advertising,’ nor is it clear that informing consumers when content is advertising actually improves their decision-making.”

The distinction between what constitutes acceptable brand interaction and content motivated by anything other than genuine interest may not yet be clear, but the FTC says it will pursue further action on matters like this as the public interest may warrant.