FTC Ruling : An Ethical Double Standard?


Yesterday Liberty London Girl broke down what the FTC actually means by ‘disclosure.' Bloggers have gained enough followers so their positive reviews are now deemed ‘endorsements' therefore we must disclose if a product or payment was received for free. But why is it that when a you write nice things about a product you got for free on a blog it's called an ‘endorsement' and when you write it in a magazine it's called ‘journalism'?

It's not the disclosure…

Now, I'm all about disclosure. I recommended that back in January, before it was regulated and when word came out in June that the FTC was planning on regulating this… at first I thought it wasn't really going to be a big deal.  But I was wrong. After months of sitting with this, not that I think I should not disclose items Sonja (The Coveted's Beauty Editor) and I get ‘free' for review. I still and always will believe in disclosure. As far as sponsored content (posts) go, or paid reviews, that's a whole other post. For a while I believed they sponsored posts offered a valuable way to monetize your blog if done properly, after all it's a vital part of a magazine's business model. But my experience with sponsored posts have been mixed, and I'm still sifting through my feelings on that. Either way, sponsored posts should always be disclosed, whether it is law or not, whether your a blog, a TV show, a magazine…or whatever.

It's the Double Standard.

My problem is that the traditional media receives product and gifts on a regular basis, and never, ever have I seen a disclosure in a magazine, television report, newspaper article or radio broadcast.

In an email conversation with Sonja, she recalls reading in the book Beauty Confidential by Nadine Jolie… “Which talks about all the perks beauty editors get. Along with product samples, they get Marc Jacobs bags, clothes, and gift cards as “thank you's” for nice write-ups. And that doesn't even cover what happens with preferential treatment companies get when they buy ad space and ads right next to so-called reviews.”  Jolie herself even mentions in her own FTC post that ‘But does swag still happen? You bet…and much more with editors than with bloggers. Cover that, FTC.'

Now, I'm not a traditional journalist. I have no desire to be a journalist whatsoever. I like writing, what I like to write about and that's about it. I love being a blogger. I work hard to get the traffic I do on my blog. It never came easy and it's vitally important. So, how is it that the trust I built with my readers needs to be regulated and someone who works for a magazine does not? If anything, bloggers have a much closer relationship to their readers than do the traditional media, therefore they are ultimately held more accountable. Not only that, many bloggers write about the things that inspire them, not because they have deadlines to reach. Most bloggers I know of do not post about something merely because it's free. And the ones that do…well, I don't think many of them have loyal followings.

Bloggers Need to Organize

All the sudden I understand how Unions are born, because collectively bloggers have the power, we're just not organized to make a stand against what is obviously a double standard. We don't have teams of lawyers filing and lobbyists for our cause. And we're not getting much help from the traditional media, or even established ‘blogs.'  Wired Magazine is one of the few who noted the discrepancy, and interpreted the new ruling to mean that established media sites do not need disclosure (thanks grechen).

The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media. In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media to be sponsored advertising messages. [K]nowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements….

In contrast, if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an “endorsement” – i.e., as a sponsored message – due to the blogger’s relationship with the advertiser or the value of the merchandise he has received and has been asked to review by that advertiser, knowing these facts might affect the weight consumers give to his review.

So basically, the FTC and traditional media think bloggers need Big Brother to show us the way. It's insulting, but aside from writing posts about it, there's not much else we can do. It's not enough that the best bloggers are ethical, and hold value the relationship with their readers more than a free lipstick. The thought that bloggers can't handle freebies and magazine editors can is laughable, I love magazine articles about buying Chanel boots and going to spas in Bali, and the bloggers I've heard about who act ‘greedy' according to PR's have about 3 subscribers.

I'm not sure what's going on here, or why they've picked on bloggers, but it's not right. The problem can't be that rampant, because I've never heard of any real instance of that occurring and I know a few bloggers. Granted it is a bit of the wild west, and it is a bit chaotic, but it really should be up to BLOGGERS to ‘level the playing field' not the FTC. I do not believe they are acting in the best interest of the consumers because if they were, then they'd enforce the same rules on every other media outlet.
Image by bu5h/ / CC BY 2.0

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30 Responses

  1. Ashe Mischief

    I don’t know what else to say except Brava! and Thank you!
    You hit on some really valid points about the hypocrisy and double standard this is creating. How fair is it for entire generations of men and women growing up, to purchase items recommended in magazines, only for there to be no governance in regards to whether it’s an advertorial or not? And yet I, who disclose things, can now be fined up to $11-16K because I didn’t do it how the FTC wanted me to? It’s crap. If you want to govern blogging this way, govern print media this way. Make it all a level playing field–make us act in accordance to print media’s bylaws about products, what we can or can’t keep, etc.
    .-= Ashe Mischief´s last blog ..Doing Body Shots: Confessions of a Deviant Polka Dot Queen =-.

  2. Amy Alkon

    Most bloggers I know of do not post about something merely because it’s free. And the ones that do…well, I don’t think many of them have loyal followings.

    Exactly. Great post. Found through my friend Virgina Postrel at DeepGlamour.net

  3. Sheena

    This is really a great post and you have summed up my feelings about the whole ruling in a much better way than I could. I really don’t mind the whole bit about disclosure and although I’ve only really done one product review, I did inform readers that the product was sent to me by the company. And yest, I have found that many more of the bloggers whose sites I read are much better and more honest about disclosure than the established media has ever been. I do think it’s because agencies like the FTC and the like don’t don’t know how to really take bloggers and since it’s still pretty “Wild West” out there, it’s just one way of them trying to regulate how we operate.

    Blogging is still a fairly new practice and it has pretty much been born through an organic process that wasn’t really driven by money in the beginning. I’d still say that for many bloggers, that is still true–many of us don’t blog just because we want to get paid, but because we want to share a part of ourselves with other people. That is very different from the established publications and that is why I agree that it’s very unfair that the FTC assumes that many of us are out here to make a quick buck or two. Like you said, however, it is very unfortunate that bloggers don’t have a voice to stand up for them. The community is pretty disenfranchised as a whole, but there really are enough bloggers and powerful blogs out there to really make a difference and a case for a level playing field, I think.

  4. grechen

    you know what? i’m so over this…i’m just going to keep doing what i’ve been doing for 5 years and wait for the FTC to get their thumbs out of their asses and get their shit straight. (which will be never) these new regulations create more confusion than solve a “problem” – any anyway, i want to know what the “problem” is – imo, the “problem” is one mommy blogger getting pissed off because another mommy blogger gets more stuff. or that the great and powerful chris brogan tried out a sponsored post *gasp!!* *the horror* and bought some stuff at kmart.

    seriously. what started all this? seems to me that things were going great and we (readers and bloggers), were able to choose who to trust and who not to trust all by ourselves…now we need the US GOVERNMENT to tell us that we shouldn’t trust bloggers anymore? that we should only trust BIG MEDIA and “REAL” JOURNALISTS?? sorry, but that really gets my panties in a wad.

    ugh. can this just be over so we can all get back to blogging?
    .-= grechen´s last blog ..when is negative a positive? =-.

  5. Michelle

    I totally agree with everything you said, Jennine! What gets me is that most people who read blogs know that the blogger gets some things for free, but a lot of people don’t know how or why products get featured in magazines, even outside of the advertorials. At least, I didn’t, until I got started reading on the PR part of a few books on indie design.

    And speaking of, allowing them to do ‘advertorials’ is incredibly hypocritical – because it’s an advertisement designed to look like the rest of the magazine! That would be like putting an ad in the middle of the page that looked like a positive review of something & then marking it in one corner in small print as an ad. Definitely something that the FTC probably wouldn’t be too fond of.

  6. WendyB

    I was thinking this too — of course traditional media gets (not very costly) samples to review. Book reviewers get free books, movie reviewers get to go to screening, beauty editors get samples — why shouldn’t bloggers? As long as it’s within reason.
    .-= WendyB´s last blog ..Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams =-.

  7. julia

    You know…I was a print journalist for years before launching my own blog for both magazines and newspapers, and find this whole thing is just ridiculous! I think it just proves that the FTC does not understand the nature of online media and almost seems to dash the spirit of entrepreneurship! I think that all media needs to adhere to guidelines, not just bloggers, if they are going to make a case of full disclosure.
    .-= julia´s last blog ..Links a La Mode: The Independent Bloggers Roundup =-.

  8. Retro Chick

    What seems even more insane to me is that trying to enforce this kind of guideline on online media will be impossible even if they had endless resources.

    I am UK based, which means that even though about 1/3 of my readers are in the US I can receive as many freebies as I like, wax lyrical about their fabulousness, encourage millions (hah!) of unsuspecting Americans to go out and purchase them, and the FTC can do nothing about it.

    (Just for the record I can count the number of freebies I’ve been sent in the last year on one hand and I’ve declared them all! I think I should be getting more free stuff…..)
    .-= Retro Chick´s last blog ..What are you Wearing? 40s Style Slacks =-.

  9. UnoCosa

    Haha… I might be the bad guy here :-))). Allow me!! as i believe it is important to see this topic from all sides. Yes, i am one of few, if not only one, who actually think certain regulations are necessary and have positive impact for the blogosphere.

    first, the fundamental difference between an individual blog and a business publication is that the personal blogging is, or supposed to be personal with subjective opinions while the business publication, well, for a better or worth, were established to create, grow and promote business.

    2nd, because of such DNA difference, what i believe the regulation comes about, or at least the way i justify, is that the disclosure is necessary to differentiate what is personal and what is business in the blogging world… you see, with the traditional media or established online publications, we know that each staff is getting paid for their job and the whole thing is a BUSINESS. But, with personal blogging, in our case, the fashion blog, the side of personal opinions can be easily mixed with the side of opinion expressed through a business arrangement, which, in my opinion, make the regulation somewhat a necessary tool to inform the viewers if or not the particular opinion in a post about a particular product has been associated to the particular business entity.

    3rd, business interest does not necessarily mean bias. It is simply a way to notify the readers that I write this post for a product that is offered to me for the review. If I have establish the trusty reputation with my readers, this disclosure will, by no means, decrease my reputation. In fact in my opinion, it elevates the blogging to a more professional level.

    4th, Remember such regulation will really ONLY apply to the blog sites with bloggers who want to grow the blogging beyond just an at-home hobbit. Why? think about it. What is the number one criterial for someone to actually be even offered any endorsements?? do you think that Coach will offer you a bag if you have less than a 100 page view daily with barely any subscriber except mum, paps, sisters and best friends??? No, probably not!!! yes, you got to have huge traffic and to gain that traffic, indeed, requires a lot work and, sometimes it could easily turn itself into a full-time job. Therefore, if it is on its way to become a potential occupation, then, the regulations will be simply unavoidable.

    5th, when you think about it, such disclosure is very much the same as giving proper credit to the source of work you borrow from other sites, or to photographers, stylist, or simply a friend who help you. We have all known the problem rising from people using and altering works without giving credits and the copyright issues have grown into such a problem that companies and individual loose millions. and just image a world where business interests are completely mixed with personal opinions, and how we, as readers, know if or not what we reading is genuine or it has hidden meaning and interest behind?? Again, please do not take it personal. this most likely wont occur to you, me or him or her … but, human is human … there are plenty of opportunists out there, which is why we need regulation to provide certain guildance to minimize the incidents from occurring though it will never prevent it completely.

    I feel it is important to see the positivities it provides, such as the professionalism, ethic in dealing with freebies and building the right relationship with the business that relate to the content of our own blogs and establish the correct perimeter between a blog that is for personal pleasure and one that is to be developed into a business. Besides, in a weird way, it is almost a public recognition that blogging is, indeed, on its way to become something much bigger … xoxo
    .-= UnoCosa´s last blog ..MY DAILY LOOKBOOK #008 =-.

  10. Sonja

    hahaha! I like Grechen’s point about one mommy blogger being jealous of another. That’s probably true. I had to laugh about the FTC statement about journalists in traditional media generally returning review samples. That’s their excuse for only going after bloggers, and they’re sticking to it – even if it isn’t true. My husband used to work as a music reviewer – talk about boxes and boxes of CDs and no reviewer sends them back. At the Today Show, where I worked, the offices were literally overflowing with toys sent from PR companies around the holidays (and there was certainly a ton of other stuff the rest of the year). Those don’t get sent back either. I think it’s simply easier to pick on bloggers.

  11. Sandra @ DebutanteClothing

    Doesn’t the government usually get involved when “lobbyists” start poking around? I wonder who makes up the group of lobbyists that started raising ethics flags on bloggers. Makes you wonder who has a vested interest in seeing bloggers get restricted doesn’t it?!
    .-= Sandra @ DebutanteClothing´s last blog ..RIP Irving Penn =-.

  12. Kasey

    I agree I don’t think discloser has ever been an issue for most bloggers. I disclose on my blog because I think the disclosure many times is a part of the story. I also give credit to other blogs for “putting me onto” a new product and most blogs I read do some type of discloser. I also agree there aren’t that many blogs that don’t disclose. My issues with this plan other than the obvious and sad double standard is how this may damage relationships with PR/Brands and bloggers and how does the FTC actually plan on enforcing this rule?
    .-= Kasey´s last blog ..Links à la Mode : October 8th =-.

  13. Ayanna Scott

    When I read the original post, your sentiment was my first thought! We bloggers are not a class of weak minded individuals that simply go with whatever is available – we are quite the opposite.

    So what is the REAL agenda here? Somewhere, someone had decided we mere bloggers are gaining too much power and popularity in the media. Someone, somewhere is really uncomfortable with us.

  14. get stuff for free

    This information is really useful and it seems to me bloggers must keep it in mind when post any add. I agree that it will be the game ‘hide and seek’, and those who have masked badly may be punished. Anyway there are much more blogs than police so most blogger can sleep the sleep of the just.