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Image: Ritual

Ritual is making its name in the crowded wellness space, a segment of the market worth an estimated $3.7 trillion. The Los Angeles-based direct-to-consumer women’s vitamin brand – which was launched in 2016 by former angel investment partner Katerina Schneider – has found fast fans in millennials consumers, thanks to its Instagram-friendly branding, and its promise of modern nutrition, formulated by a team of in-house doctors and advisors. It has also found friends in the venture capital world, raising $16.5 million in funding to date.

In addition to its inherently Instagrammable branding – including its signature marigold hue (Pantone placed its bets on a similar color not too long ago) and its clear capsules stored in clear vitamin bottles), Ritual is checking another box in terms of its attempts to lure in the modern consumer: it is positioning itself as a company rooted in “transparency,” one of the buzziest words in marketing in recent years.

“We expect transparency from a lot of other products we ingest or put on our bodies, but it’s kind of a maze in the vitamin world,” Schneider told Wired in 2016. With that in mind, Ritual’s messaging is clear. It is aiming to provide millennial women with vitamins in the most transparent way possible, both in terms of the vitamins they actually need on a daily basis, and in terms of the quality and source of the vitamins that Ritual uses.

But the brand’s message does not quite add up, according to the New York Times’ Sapna Maheshwari, who wrote last week: “A closer look at Ritual’s marketing showed that Ritual …  has not always helped customers separate facts from spin.” She is referring to the brand’s marketing tactics.

The company has paid for articles on websites like Well & Good and PureWow, and then taken positive quotes from those articles [and put them] in its ads on Facebook and Instagram. It has also used news coverage from CNN and The New York Times to suggest that the outlets endorsed benefits from its vitamins,” Maheshwari writes.

For instance, “Ritual features a quote from lifestyle site Well & Good on its home page, saying, ‘Everyone you know is about to start taking this buzzy multivitamin.’ The line is also cited in Facebook and Instagram ads.” Maheshwari further notes that while such language appears to be an independent “editorial endorsement” from Well & Good’s writer, in reality, “it comes from a post that Ritual paid for.”

Schneider responded to the Times, saying that the company did not believe it was misleading to use those quotations in its ads, although they were taken from sponsored posts. The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), however, might disagree.

Chances are, the social media posts and the underlying articles that the Times cites are not properly disclosed as branded endorsements and paid-for posts, respectively, giving rise to a chance that the reader will be misled as to the nature of the contents.

According to the FTC’s guidelines, “When there is a connection between [two parties] that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement … such connection must be fully disclosed.” In other words, if a media entity is paid by a company to run an article, that must be disclosed in a “clear and conspicuous” way, meaning that “consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily. They should not have to look for it.”

In particular, the disclosure language should be “close to the claims to which they relate; in a font that is easy to read; and in a shade that stands out against the background,” and  whenever possible, it is “best to make it visible in the beginning [of a post].” The FTC has also noted that disclosures placed at the bottom of articles and/or social media posts might not be viewed by readers and therefore, are not likely to be considered valid disclosures.

This is where things likely go awry for both of the New York Times-noted sponsored articles. The article on Well + Good, entitled, “I Finally Tried The Buzzy Vitamin Everyone’s Talking About—Here’s What Happened,” which was published in June, almost certainly runs afoul of the FTC’s guidelines because the disclosure – “In partnership with Ritual” – is at the very bottom of Well + Good’s 14-paragraph article.

The PureWow article, “5 Things You Need to Know about Ritual’s Obsessively-Researched Vitamin,” is similarly questionable, as the word “Sponsored,” while at the top of the post, is in a font that is significantly smaller and less bold than the title of the article. (I missed the disclosure the first time I read through the post).

It is worth noting that it is unclear whether additional articles  such as NewBeauty.com’s “10 Things You Should Know About Those Instagram-Famous Vitamins You’re Seeing Everywhere” and PopSugar’s “I Finally Tried Those Trendy Vitamins I See All Over Instagram. Here’s Why I’m Hooked”   are sponsored, although they certainly seem to be.

As for whether the weight of these potential FTC disclosure violations falls on Ritual or the media companies whose websites posted the articles, the FTC has long held the both parties are responsible for ensuring the use of proper disclosures.

The Wellness Industry as a Whole

Such questionable advertising activities join a larger trend of sketchiness among wellness companies, both in terms of advertising and efficacy. 

In August 2016, Truth in Advertising Inc. called foul on hair growth supplement maker Sugar Bear Hair, and weight loss tea companies Fit Tea and Flat Tummy Tea in connection with a larger complaint against the Kardashian/Jenners for their failure to disclose sponsored posts on Instagram. The Connecticut-based nonprofit organization filed a formal complaint with the FTC two years ago, alleging that “the Kardashian/Jenner family and the companies that have a commercial relationship with them have ignored [federal disclosure] law for far too long, and it’s time that they were held accountable.”

A year later, FitTea came under fire with the National Advertising Division (“NAD”) for consistently enlisting influencers to promote its weight loss tea products and failing to ensure that such individuals disclose that they were paid to do so. NAD also criticized the content of some FitTea’s paid-for endorsements, namely ones that assert that consuming FitTea helps to promote with weight loss, finding that, in reality, “there was no evidence in the record that drinking FitTea by itself will boost metabolism, boost immunity, burn fat or otherwise result in weight loss.”

Fast forward to earlier this month and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop was ordered to pay $145,000 in connection with a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the company for making unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy and benefits of its products. According to a complaint filed late last month in a California state court in Napa, Goop made unfounded claims about its $66 vaginal Jade and Rose Quartz Egg, and its Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend.

In short, while social media, and the internet more generally, is rife with countless types of vitamins and supplements that promise everything from increased hair growth to the reduction of fine lines, few endorsements and reviews come without some form of backdoor dealings that are being hid from consumers, and of course, not all claims in the burgeoning wellness space, regardless of how well-packed they are or how transparent they claim to be, are created equal.