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Influencers paid by the City of Wichita must begin labeling paid content

Wichita City Hall at the corner of Central and Main.
Kylie Cameron
Wichita City Hall at the corner of Central and Main.

The Federal Trade Commission requires all paid content be labeled, or both parties can be fined.

The City of Wichita has directed local influencers to label social media and digital content that the city has paid for.

The move comes after a video from a local influencer about the city’s work to patch potholes went viral on TikTok. The video was paid for by the city, but not labeled as such.

Adding content labels puts the city and influencers in compliance with recently issued Federal Trade Commission guidelines. The FTC requires all paid content be labeled, or both parties can be fined.

“We're learning, we're shifting, and we're hoping to grow it,” city spokesperson Megan Lovely said. “But again, we're mostly focused on just trying to find ways to reach as many people as possible.”

According to documents obtained by KMUW, the city began paying influencers for content in 2021. The content mostly promoted Park and Recreation activities and programs.

The city then steadily increased its expenditures to local influencers through larger package deals. In 2023, it spent about $26,000 with several local influencers, including Wichita Life and Wichita by E.B.

Wichita Life and Wichita by E.B. did not respond to several emails and social media messages for comment.

The city argued that it began using influencers because traditional media buys are more expensive, and that a recent survey done by the city showed people got their information about the city from social media.

“We all know the fractured state of media,” Lovely said. “If everyone was getting their news in one place, that would make our job a whole lot easier.”

Jenny Heinrich is an Influencer Marketing professor at DePaul University. She said when it comes to labeling paid content, it’s about being honest with the audience.

“There's some exchange, there's a relationship there,” she said. “If you're not disclosing that there's a relationship between you, and whatever brand or product it is, then you're not being honest with your community members.”

The city insists that it doesn’t have oversight of what is published, and instead suggests topics for the influencers to post about.

Lovely said the city worked with Wichita Life to post a video explainer about STAR bond districts, but the video “didn’t do well.”

“This is not something people are engaging with,” Lovely said. “So, in that instance, it was sort of a collaboration to say, ‘OK, well, we want to increase education about this topic. This is not the platform to do it. This is not successful in reaching the numbers that we're looking for.’”

The Wichita Airport Authority, which oversees Eisenhower National Airport, also paid for local influencers to create content to promote the airport.

City documents show that the airport will pay Wichita by E.B. almost $5,000 for several social media and blog posts, as well as several features in the coming year.

A business proposal from Wichita by E.B. shows that those posts will be on topics “agreed upon” with the airport authority.

A blog post on E.B.’s site about an airport event, which occurred before the city told influencers to label paid content, did not disclose that the content was paid for by the airport.

Heinrich, the DePaul professor, said influencers who are found out of compliance with FTC guidelines for paid content will often receive a warning. After that initial warning, though, the influencer and brand paying for the content can receive fines.

“If an influencer is consistently doing this, the FTC will notice, and they will get served,” Heinrich said. “Not only will the influencer get fined and have a letter written, so will the brand.

“Because it's really the brand and/or the agency who's running the program to ensure that the creator that they're partnering with are disclosing the partnership in the best way possible.”

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.
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