McDonald’s Twitter account on March 8, 2018

Today is International Women’s Day. As a way to celebrate, McDonald’s has flipped their iconic golden arches upside-down. The arches, one of the most recognizable logos, have been physically flipped in one California location but can be seen on McDonald’s social media channels. Putting aside the effort to flip the California sign, by simply rotating its logo on social media McDonald’s was able, whether intended or not, to accomplish several marketing and advertising objectives. First, the move helped bring further awareness to an inspiring campaign; a great way to enhance brand identity and perception. Second, it created plenty of buzz and free publicity with news outlets in the U.S. and around the world picking up the story. Third, while the change was significant enough for people to take notice, it was not significant enough to cause any brand confusion. That is, consumers could still quickly identify the source.

This move serves as a great reminder that companies can use their brand identity, including their logos and other trademarks, in creative new ways to accomplish a variety of goals. Today, McDonald’s has helped to make sure that International Women’s Day and its objectives are a part of our global conversation. I’m loving it and I’m sure McDonald’s is too.

Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced a settlement with PayPal, Inc. over allegations that Venmo, a PayPal-owned mobile payment and social networking application, misled customers on issues relating to account transfers and privacy settings and enabled fraud through inadequate security practices.

Founded in 2009, Venmo lets users easily transfer money to one another and share information regarding such payments through a social network feed.  From a user perspective, Venmo operates a lot like any other major social media network, letting users “pay” each other in the same way you “tag” a friend in an Instagram post.  Thanks to its familiar social media-style interface and the ease with which it lets users split everyday expenses like bar tabs and rent payments, Venmo quickly became a favorite among millennials and college students.

According to the FTC, however, Venmo’s perceived simplicity was deceptive.  In a complaint originally filed against Venmo-parent PayPal in 2016, the FTC alleged that Venmo’s notification policy misled consumers and constituted a “deceptive or unfair practice” under Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.  Under the policy, Venmo notified users that funds were credited to their account before Venmo had reviewed and verified the underlying transaction.  According to the complaint, this practice resulting in unexpected delays and reversals.  It also created an ideal environment for fraud.  By falsely conveying to sellers that transactions had cleared, scammers were able to buy goods and services with fake or fraudulent information, leaving sellers with nothing when the transactions were ultimately reversed.

The FTC further charged that Venmo misled consumers about the privacy of information about their transactions.  Under the application’s default settings, whenever a user pays or is paid through the application, a description of the transaction and its participants is shared with all of the user’s “friends” in a social networking feed.  While Venmo offers privacy settings that let users limit who can view their transactions, it failed to accurately explain to users how those privacy settings actually work.

Additional charges alleged that Venmo misrepresented the extent to which consumers’ accounts were protected by “bank grade security systems” and violated the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act’s Safeguards and Privacy Rules.

“This case sends a strong message that financial institutions like Venmo need to focus on privacy and security from day one,” acting FTC chairman Maureen Ohlhausen said in a statement.  “Consumers suffered real harm when Venmo did not live up to the promises it made to users about the availability of their money.”

For businesses dealing directly with consumers, this case underscores the importance of taking your duty to educate consumers about your product seriously, especially when it comes to how customer information will be used.  Such businesses should regularly review disclosures and other consumer-facing messages to ensure they are not only accurate but also consistent with reasonable consumer expectations.  And whenever costumers are given options as to how their information will be used, make sure those options are clearly conveyed and, perhaps most importantly, honor their choices.

If anyone was still unsure, Kylie Jenner recently proved that a tweet or post from a social media influencer can have a profound impact. Accordingly, companies are increasingly collaborating with social media influencers to promote their brand. This partnership has become quite lucrative for both parties. For example, a recent Forbes article found that influencers could charge $3,000 to $5,000 per post, while some more sought-after influencers were commanding upwards of $25,000. Influencers could also charge anywhere from $20,000 to $300,000 for a campaign or partnership, depending on the number of followers and the social media platform used. Likewise, a 2015 survey by Tomoson found that, on average, “[b]usinesses are making $6.50 for every $1 spent on influencer marketing.” Influencer campaigns have even resulted in products immediately selling-out.

But what happens when an influencer’s post infringers on the intellectual property rights of another?

The relationship between influencers and a business can vary widely. In some instances, businesses oversee and orchestrate the social media posting, almost akin to directing a commercial. In other scenarios, businesses request final approval before the posting is made public. In still other scenarios, the influencer is not given concrete direction or required to get approval for the posting, i.e., the influencer is free to promote the brand as they wish. Business and influencers should be aware of different liability concerns in each scenario.

One of the first cases in this arena was a suit brought by Ultra Records against influencer Michelle Phan for allegedly using background music in her postings without prior permission. While the case eventually settled, it raised the real concern of copyright infringement concerns in influencer advertising and marketing campaigns. As this emerging avenue of advertising and marketing grows in scope and profitability so will the lawsuits. When contracting in any scenario, parties should make sure to address liability concerns for any potential IP infringement. Businesses and influencers should think twice before making their next post and make sure the works and rights of others are not being used without permission. Perhaps more importantly, the parties should take proactive steps to address who will be liable in the event infringement does occur.

Social media bots may seem like a futuristic phenomenon or something belonging only in the TV series “Homeland,” but they’re already here affecting businesses and individuals online.

Last month, the New York Times reported on its investigation into the selling of fake Twitter followers and retweets by an American company named Devumi, which it estimates has at least 3.5 million automated Twitter accounts and at least 55,000 of which that impersonate real people.  These individuals probably have no idea that Devumi purportedly uses their names, profile pictures, etc. to create automated accounts to sell to celebrities, politicians, businesses, and others looking to boost their following online.

According to a related New York Times article, there have been a number of both federal and state inquiries into fake social media account practices such as these, including an investigation that the New York Attorney General’s office opened last month into Devumi’s practice of using stolen identities to sell fake accounts, which it believes would constitute illegal impersonation and deception.  Social media companies, on the other hand, appear to be grappling with how to best enforce their policies and handle fake user accounts, which can have a significant influence on businesses, politics, and consumer behavior.  And influencers themselves, who may believe they are buying legitimate followers, are likely left with questions of their own.

Today’s presence of social media bots requires companies to be even more cognizant of certain practices online.  Although social media can be a powerful tool in any company’s advertising or marketing plan, companies need to be careful for example when considering whether and how to purchase social media followers.  And, as always, companies should avoid any online practices that appear illegal or fraudulent.

Rashanda Bruce writes:

Social media megaphone cartoonIn a growing world of technology, companies are employing social media platforms to attract new customers and grow their online presence.  #Hashtags and @Handles – made popular by Twitter – have proven to be effective sources for growing business.  Hashtags label words, making it easier for customers to find themed information or specific content.  Handles create unique identifiers, making it easier for companies to create and market their brand.

Celebrities also rely on hashtags and handles to market their brands.  With followers ranging in the thousands to the millions, celebrities use these social media tools to maintain and boost engagement with fans.  Additionally, celebrities rely on social media when they enter into partnerships with companies.  The partnerships typically require celebrities to reference companies on social media platforms.  These references increase a company’s awareness and provide brand validation for celebrity followers.  Recognizing this trend, some companies have started to reference celebrities via hashtags and handles – even where the celebrity and company do not have a partnership.  Although a profitable marketing strategy, companies should understand how this strategy could lead to a celebrity claiming a right of publicity violation.

The right of publicity prevents the unauthorized commercial use of an individual’s name, likeness, or other recognizable aspects of one’s persona.  Although not governed by a federal statute, the right of publicity is actionable and protected by state common or statutory law.  The right of publicity is a property right, thereby prohibiting others from using an individual’s identity for a commercial gain.  Companies who use social media for marketing purposes should take precautionary steps to avoid possible violations.

For example, companies desiring to use a celebrity’s name for marketing purposes should consult with the celebrity.  Best practice is to obtain consent from the celebrity in writing with clearly defined language and detailed rights regarding name use on social media platforms.  Where a celebrity is unavailable or unresponsive, companies should think about whether it is better to simply refrain from using the celebrity’s name.  Companies should also develop policies for employees who use social media on behalf of the company.  Establishing protocol will help alleviate concerns and risk.

Social media marketing using celebrity names can be profitable for companies when appropriately used.  However, this same marketing tool can also prove to be burdensome and costly if celebrities feel their publicity rights have been violated.  In a growing world of technology, companies need to exercise caution and good judgment when making these marketing decisions.

Rashanda Bruce is a summer associate, based in the firm’s Minneapolis office.