Prohibited content in SMS marketing

Discover what topics you can and can’t talk about in your SMS campaigns and understand the guidelines around prohibited content.

While SMS marketing seems like a far more casual way to stay in touch with customers than email or phone, it’s still a marketing channel and comes with its own strict guidelines, rules, and regulations just like any other marketing channel.

Before you send any type of text message, whether it’s a sales promotion or simply an appointment reminder, you need to familiarize yourself with the rules on prohibited content. This includes topics, words, and themes that are banned in any form of marketing as outlined by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA). 

In its Short Code Monitoring Handbook, the CTIA states that “all content associated with Short Code programs should promote a positive user experience.” When we say short code here, we mean SMS or text messages. 

Any messaging content you send should: 

  • Adhere to all applicable laws;
  • Be age-gated appropriately for controlled substances and adult content;
  • Follow CTIA Unwanted Messages guidelines;
  • Be sent via compliant opt-in to subscribers who want it; and 
  • Abide by all other Handbook standards.

Let’s break this down. 

Prevent unwanted messages

SMS messaging is a convenient way to contact consumers. Delivery is quick and open rates are high. It’s great for sending urgent messages and is the ideal medium for lots of different kinds of communication. But the ease and immediacy of text message marketing mean it’s tempting to bombard customers with messages. 

The CTIA has established some rules around Unwanted Messaging to ensure consumers (and businesses) can freely exchange messages without feeling harassed. 

According to the CTIA’s Message Principles and Best Practices, Unwanted Messages include: 

  • Unsolicited bulk commercial messages (i.e., spam);
  • “Phishing” messages that aim to access private or confidential information; 
  • Other forms of abusive, harmful, malicious, unlawful, or otherwise inappropriate messages; and 
  • Messages that required an opt-in but didn’t obtain such opt-in. 

To put it simply: be mindful of how many commercial messages (i.e., sales and marketing) you send out to customers, and don’t send SMS messages to people who haven’t explicitly opted in to receive them. 

Avoid sending SHAFT content (and more)

S.H.A.F.T. content refers to content about sex, hate, alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. It’s monitored and enforced by the CTIA and the majority of mobile carriers to regulate the type of content that can and can’t be sent. 


Sexually inappropriate messages and references to sex or adult content are strictly prohibited in SMS marketing. 


You can’t include hate speech or profanities. 


Alcohol is slightly more nuanced under the CTIA guidelines. You can send content about alcohol as long as you’ve put proper age-gating procedures in place. This means consumers have to verify their age before they receive any kind of content about alcohol. Age gating requires customers to manually input their date of birth — you can’t just ask a yes or no question such as “Are you over the age of 21?”. 

If you sell alcohol products, you can use SMS marketing if you avoid the words “alcohol”, “wine’, and “liquor” until you have verified a recipient’s age. 


Any talk of firearms, firearm accessories, or depictions or endorsements of violence are strictly prohibited in SMS messages. 


You can’t talk about tobacco products, including vaping, in your SMS campaigns unless you’ve used proper age-gating procedures and have verified a customer’s age through legitimate methods. 


While gambling is legal in the US, mobile carriers have a moral responsibility to prohibit content that promotes gambling. 


Cannabis is a trickier topic to monitor because the legality of it varies from state to state. It’s impossible to filter by recipient location, which makes it almost impossible to implement legally. Because of this, at SimpleTexting, we monitor and prohibit messages that include references to cannabis and marijuana (including CBD). 

These are the main prohibited topics, but different carriers will have different rules. Some will also prohibit content that references: 

  • High-risk financial services;
  • Debt collection;
  • Multi-level marketing or “get rich quick” schemes; and
  • Third-party lead generation services

Refer to the CTIA’s Handbook to learn more about what topics are strictly prohibited. 

Don’t text unlawful, fraudulent, or illicit content

It’s up to you to abide by the rules and regulations. This includes monitoring and preventing unwanted messages and avoiding prohibited topics, but it also means steering clear of content that’s unlawful, fraudulent, or illicit in any way. 

This can be content that: 

  • Is harmful, abusive, malicious, misleading, or harassing;
  • Is excessively violent, obscene, or defamatory;
  • Deceives or intends to deceive; 
  • Invades privacy;
  • Causes safety concerns;
  • Intends to intimidate;
  • Includes malware;
  • Threatens consumers; or
  • Doesn’t meet age-gating requirements. 

SMS is a great way to build trust with your customers, so it’s up to you to take extra steps to make sure your marketing content isn’t misleading and complies with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Truth-In-Advertising Rules. 

Age gate before sending texts about controlled substances and adult content

If you sell alcohol or controlled substances, don’t panic — you can still send SMS campaigns to customers, but there are extra steps involved to make sure you remain compliant. You’ll need to verify the recipient’s age before you can send messages that include prohibited words related to alcohol, liquor, and tobacco. Note that you’re prohibited from sending messages about the abuse of controlled substances. 

You can age gate with SimpleTexting’s Configuration functionality. When you create a new keyword opt-in, toggle to the configuration tab and click the third option: Send age verification message upon sign-up. 

For example, if you run a brewery and want to text customers to announce the launch of a new range of drinks, you’ll need to confirm you’re sending that information to people who are over 21. 

Set a minimum age and an age verification message. You have the option to create a message to send to subscribers who don’t meet the age criteria. 

Screenshot of the configuration functionality in SimpleTexting.  
Set up age verification at the opt-in stage with SimpleTexting

To comply with CTIA’s regulations, you need to include robust age verification at the opt-in stage. It’s not enough to ask consumers if they’re over the legally required age. Instead, they need to electronically confirm their age by manually entering their date of birth. 

A note on sweepstakes and contests

Sweepstakes and contests are a great way to grow your SMS list and reach new people, but they come with an extra layer of protection for recipients. The element of chance can muddy the waters and make it seem like gambling (a prohibited topic), but because there’s no purchase necessary, the rules are more relaxed.

That being said, if you’re thinking about running a sweepstake, it’s a good idea to get some legal advice before making it live. Individual Wireless Providers have different rules and tend to review sweepstakes and contests individually. To increase your chances of getting approved, make sure you:

  • Follow your Wireless Provider’s process and guidelines;
  • Give your Wireless Provider the rules to review; and
  • Include a free method of entry. 

FTC truth in advertising

The FTC’s truth in advertising is an enforced concept of being truthful and accurate about the products and services you’re offering — it applies to every type of marketing, not just SMS. Fail to stick to the guidelines, and you might find yourself with a hefty fine or penalty. This is why you’ll see sponsored posts marked with #ad tags and why influencers are required to share when they’ve been gifted a product to review. 

The guidelines have been put in place to create a more honest advertising landscape, so as long as you’re being truthful about your promotions and marketing, you should be fine. 

Follow these best practices to be sure: 

  • Don’t make unfounded claims. Promoting a food or health product? Don’t state things as facts if you don’t have the research to back them up. 
  • Be upfront with consumers. Be honest wherever possible. If you’re affiliated with a partner company and are promoting their products, you’re required to disclose that information to consumers. 
  • Avoid misleading testimonials. Don’t take customer words out of context and err on the side of caution when promoting endorsements and testimonials in your SMS campaigns. 
  • Disclose paid endorsements. Working with influencers and partners can increase your company’s visibility, but it’s important to always state when you are paying someone to promote your products or services. 

The bottom line is this: as long as you’re honest with consumers, disclose any paid endorsements, and back up every claim with solid, trusted research, you’ll stay on the right side of the FTC.