This post is by the lovely Liberty London Girl
Okay hold on to your hats: this is a long post, but there is a lot to cover to ensure that we all understand the ramifications for US bloggers of yesterday’s publication of the US Government’s Federal Trade Commission’s Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials.
Some bloggers have interpreted these guides to mean that if they favourably review a service they have been given, or a product they have been sent & are not expected to return, they must always disclose that they did not pay for the service or product. Whilst this is generally Good Practice, the FTC is more concerned with bloggers favourably writing about products or services for remuneration (either paid or in-kind) i.e. endorsing product, without disclosing this to their readers.
The pertinent part of the FTC press release reads as follows:
“The revised Guides…illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers…must be disclosed…The post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”
The FTC makes it clear that “a consumer who purchases a product with his or her own money and praises it on a personal blog…will not be deemed to be providing an endorsement”. Equally, “Even if that consumer receives a single, unsolicited item from one manufacturer and writes positively about it on a personal blog or…the review is not likely to be deemed an endorsement, given the absence of a course of dealing with that advertiser”
Of course, the confusion arises because it can be argued that if the product sent to the blogger for review is expensive and sought after, then the line between paid for endorsement and considered review becomes blurred. Respecting this grey area, the FTC leaves a lot open to interpretation, and cites the following circumstances which should be taken into consideration:
“whether the speaker is compensated by the advertiser or its agent; whether the product or service in question was provided for free by the advertiser; the terms of any agreement; the length of the relationship; the previous receipt of products or services from the same or similar advertisers, or the likelihood of future receipt of such products or services; and the value of the items or services received.”
However, and this is the area that most directly affects bloggers, the FTC feel that if a blogger regularly receives product “with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself… because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be “endorsements.”
This means that for bloggers like myself who regularly receive lots of samples, we must ALWAYS disclose that they have been given to us if we review them favourably, or not.
For most bloggers who, unlike me, are not journalists or editors, this entire arena is a brave new world. It’s easy to get blown away by the idea that a publicist actually wants to give you something, maybe even something quite expensive that you really like. And what could seem more natural than to write up a glowing review of the product or experience to say thank you? And maybe to be extra glowingly nice about the product or service in order to build a relationship with the publicist in order to get more free stuff in the future. Thing is, if you bear in mind the guidance given by the FTC, this would be crossing a line.
This may come as a surprise to many independent bloggers who have presumed that, as their blogs are personal communication spaces as opposed to commercial communication spaces, supported by advertising, there are no official codes for them to follow. It certainly came as a surprise to me, as a British citizen, as there are no equivalent codes governing blogging behaviour in the UK or EU – and, to the best of my knowledge, no plans for them in the near future.
However, I now live & work in the US, so these codes affect me too. Fortunately, as a journalist & fashion editor of more than ten year’s experience I have always applied the ethics codes of the print world to my online work. I could hardly afford not to: being seen to flout the ethical considerations of my work as journalist would have ramifications with the people who employ me, and the publicists with whom I deal daily. In short: my credibility would be shot to pieces.
What are these ethical considerations? It’s simple. Divulge to your readers if you have been paid, sponsored, endorsed or been given a product, service or experience by a company or publicist.
Given these new formal FTC guides, I would recommend that any blogger who reviews product or services that they have been given for free through the aegis of the owner, publicist or public relations company should take the time to work out their personal policies and, preferably, make them clear to both readers and publicists.
For example: at the bottom of my blog there is a very long Small Print section that sets out my terms & conditions. Regular readers of my blog will know that I always mention if I have been given something by a publicist. There are several ways to do this: it doesn’t just have to be a bald statement at the bottom of the blog. Sometimes I might work it into the copy: “Digging through the box of beauty samples sent to me recently” or maybe, “In the mail today I received…”. If I am given a hotel stay for free, then I will always write at the bottom of the piece, “LLG was a guest of….” in exactly the same way that I would for a national newspaper travel piece.
Being transparent in your dealings with readers and with commercial agents is always the best way to proceed, then there can be no grey areas.
Of course, there is another discussion to be had as to whether bloggers are being unfairly targeted in comparison to print journalists, but I think it’s more important to clarify the immediate ramifications of the FTC Guides.
Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that I am not a lawyer, and that this post represents my personal interpretation of the FTC Guides and has no bearing in law.
Image by Nickolas Murray