Navigating the ‘slippery slope’ of personal endorsements in podcast ads

The FTC has never handled a case specific to podcast advertising, but has recently proposed an update to its guidelines for endorsements that includes a podcast example.
article cover

Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: Getty Images

6 min read

Ever wondered if your favorite podcast host really made the HelloFresh meal they’re gushing about, or actually slept on the $2,000 mattress they claim fixed their back problems?

In the world of podcasting, personal endorsements via host-read ads are everywhere. And they seemingly haven’t been subject to much regulatory scrutiny: To date, the FTC has never sent warning letters or handled cases involving podcast ads, according to spokesperson Juliana Gruenwald Henderson. It also doesn’t comment on “investigatory targets,” she wrote in an email to Marketing Brew, so it’s hard to tell if podcast advertising will eventually be subjected to more scrutiny.

The agency has, however, rubbed elbows with the audio world:

  • In 2021, it sent a “Notice of Penalty Offenses” to hundreds of companies, including iHeartMedia, SiriusXM, and Stitcher, to warn them against using “endorsements to deceive consumers.”
  • Late last year, it reached a settlement with Google and iHeart involving on-air radio personalities who allegedly made “deceptive endorsements” on the radio.
  • Though the FTC’s guidelines for endorsements and testimonials in advertising don’t mention podcasts, the agency proposed a change last May that would, if approved, add an example concerning a podcast host related to disclosing material connections.

Between these developments, and the fact that several celebrities have recently been in hot water over allegedly unlawful or misleading ads, some in the podcast industry are on alert to make sure brands and hosts are acting within bounds.

It’s personal

When reflecting on predictions for 2023, Glenn Rubenstein, founder and CEO of podcast agency Adopter Media, said after a year of “some concerning headlines for the podcast industry, brands and networks also need to work together to make sure they’re adhering to FTC endorsement guidelines.” Adam McNeil, Adopter’s VP of marketing, said he expects these guidelines “will come into play far more significantly in 2023.”

While the FTC provides guidance for social media influencers regarding endorsements, it’s not totally clear what something similar could look like for podcast hosts, though the aforementioned proposal does shed some light. In an example, the FTC wrote that if near the beginning of a podcast, a “host reads what is obviously a commercial for a product,” a payment disclosure isn’t needed since “even without a statement identifying the advertiser as a sponsor, listeners would likely still expect that the podcaster was compensated.” Translation: People are smart enough to know what an ad sounds like.

It goes on to say that, “depending upon the language of the commercial, however, the audience may believe that the host is expressing their own views in the commercial, in which case the host would need to hold the views expressed.” That could constitute a “personal endorsement,” and not all host-read ads are.

The FTC defines an endorsement as “any advertising message that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experience of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.”

When it comes to podcast advertising, a host-read ad with a personal endorsement implies that the host has used the product or service, Hilary Ross Shafer, VP of the podcasting and YouTube influencer arm of Veritone One, a performance audio agency, explained. A “straight” host read might include discussions of the benefits of the brand but with no implication of personal use, she added.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

If a host hasn’t tried product or service—a jewelry brand might not mail out diamond necklaces worth more than the campaign itself, and not every podcaster actually needs a new mattress—they can still read an ad for it, but it can’t seem as if they’ve tried it, under FTC guidelines.

To endorse or not to endorse?

The personal nature of host-read ads is a large part of their appeal, so it’s not exactly surprising that advertisers often seek out personal endorsements from hosts, who, along with brands, can be responsible for making sure that the language of the ad adheres to the FTC’s guidelines depending on the scenario.

There can be “pressure” to agree to personal endorsements to lock in new advertisers, David Plotz, host of Slate’s Political Gabfest and CEO of City Cast, a national network of daily local news podcasts, explained, which can present a “slippery slope” situation for podcasters.

Some advertisers even require personal endorsements. Usually, “the food is good, the product works, it feels good,” he said. Of course, listeners might never know if hosts are giving a glowing review as a way to potentially please an advertiser.

Plotz said he’s done some personal endorsement ads because he legitimately wants to, and others more at the request of his sales team, but has occasionally declined to do personal endorsements for specific products. He’s even seen advertisers “trying to sneak a personal endorsement” into the copy of a host-read ad without “asking us to try the product,” in which case he reads it in the second person, he said.

Some podcasters have no qualms about endorsing products they’ve tried. Take Lauren LoGrasso, host and executive producer of the podcast Unleash Your Inner Creative, who told us she prefers when a personal endorsement is required because it allows her to “speak more authentically.”

One notable network that does not allow any kind of personal endorsements is NPR, a practice that started with radio and carried over into podcasting, Gina Garrubbo, CEO of National Public Media, NPR’s exclusive sponsorship arm, said. “Because NPR has 50 years of quality audio journalism, overseen by the FCC on radio, NPR always took the approach of fact-based messaging, less is more, inform don’t sell, and not even having claims.”

Ultimately, considering hosts have their own preferences and varying comfort levels with endorsements, Rubenstein and Shafer both stressed the importance of an onboarding call between a host and an advertiser to help prevent potential missteps.

“Even though we don’t have official guidelines, there are best practices to conduct yourself as a creator and also to partner with brands,” Shafer said. “A lot of this is flushed out during that vetting process upfront. We don’t expect all hosts to agree to or want to work with all brands. There isn’t always a synergy or a fit there.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.