FTC Tightens Guidelines on Bloggers, Tweeters to Encourage Transparency in Paid Endorsements


You may have read already that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has amended its guidelines regarding endorsements and testimonials, last changed in 1980, to require bloggers to disclose a financial relationship they have with an advertiser or agency when publishing a review about a product or service. This most likely has to do with bloggers such as those recruited now by Walmart, Lifetime, or other big brands trying to influence the bloggosphere, but nonetheless, the guidelines do not discriminate. In the words of the FTC:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, 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 Wall Street Journal published a piece on this, implying that the FTC wanted to restrict gift giving to bloggers, and followed up with at least two clarifying articles which made it clear that the FTC was targeting advertisers, and not bloggers, to maintain the ethical responsibility to fully disclose when bloggers are paid to positively review a product. In the FTC article mentioned above, tweets from Twitter are not mentioned, but The Wall Street Journal does include them in its analysis, as any experienced online person would as well, since both blogs and personal Twitter feeds aka "micro-blogs" and are being used to endorse products and services, both in a paid-for-services way, and in a strictly editorial way.

Discussion on this topic can go in several directions, including the direction of federal government involvement in general and whether or not it's a good idea. Let's refrain from that conversation, and instead focus on why the FTC was compelled to amend these guidelines in the first place. Usually government springs into action based on a relevant current issue. The issue here is clear: the bloggosphere has been growing and growing. The Twittersphere has been growing even faster because creating content for a "micro-blog" is a lot easier than publishing a proper and effective blog post. That said, some bloggers and tweeters are taking liberties with their public voices which may not be in the best interest of maintaining truth and trust when endorsing a product or service, and can actually pollute so called "word-of-mouth" marketing. Let's explore:

Bloggers started blogging, in my opinion at least, to have a voice. As a voice, they had to say something worthwhile to maintain an audience. Some were talented enough to just write about their lives. Others had to have themes and be top trendspotters. Like magazines, they searched the world for good product or service to recommend. Early PR firms or boutique firms actually had their finger on the pulse of this word-of-mouth movement that at the time, was extremely genuine because bloggers had devoted followings - small or large - each had some kind of influence over purchasing decisions. As a blogger myself, my first direct pitch was from then first time author Jennifer Solow. She reached out to me to review her then new book, The Booster. Her directive: if you like it, please blog about it. If you don't like it, please don't. Well I did review it, but *gasp* I didn't mention that she sent me the book to read. Ethics would indicate that maybe I should have disclosed that I got a free book, but you know what? If the book was bad, A. I'm not going to finish it, and B. I'm not going to recommend it to anyone because my reputation would not be trusted when others went out and bought it and were bored stiff. But I could have added a little sentance at the bottom of the post. It would not have hurt my blog post in any way.

True blogging, in my opinion, is just genuine. If you really need a sample in order to give a proper review, fine. For the nomie baby car seat cover, sending a sample to a mom blogger makes sense because it needs to be mom-tested-and-approved. But for a designer like SpoonFedArt, whose publicist first emailed me long ago, little tips about cool stuff can go a long way. When I opened the email from the publicist to tell me about something wonderful that just happened for the then new company SpoonFedArt, I read it, liked the product, and blogged about it, saying how fun my inbox was those days.

Or is that the McDonalds dollar menu?

Tin Shingle tweets for our members who pay for membership. Our tweets spread naturally b/c the links are just so good. Tweeting information about our members is clearly stated in our membership benefits (we refer to it as Promotyping, a term we made up), but it's also a no-brainer for us, and we couldn't not do it if we tried (that's why we made it a benefit). This is a most creative and effective use of a Twitter feed for potential profit (because yes, people do understand that part of their Tin Shingle membership includes endorsements from us via social networking). We didn't sell our Twitter souls for our 140 character real estate for $1 to tweet about a random product from some random guy hocking his wares. That would dilute our Twitter strength, and thus hurt our actual recommendations. If you are considering selling your Twitter stream for $1 a tweet regardless of what the product is and if you like it or not, think again if you want quality followers.

Bloggers who are in this for the free stuff should re-think the impact of their voices, and consider going back to basics, where their voice is key, and trust is their golden egg. You don't need to review a piece of art or a limited edition product to know you you like the look of it. If you're so concerned about integrity, put on a disclaimer that you've never actually touched the fabric or the spoon, and to buy at your own risk. But come on people.

The Wall Street Journal points out that "...newspapers generally prohibit reporters from accepting gifts from a company they write about to protect their credibility with readers." Note that reason: to protect their credibility with readers. Bloggers do not have an editorial department or publisher to please. They just press "publish" and up it goes for the world to see. This is great, but requires self-monitoring to make sure you are fairly representing an industry of words.

Thanks @kelcott for passing along this article from Gally Cat: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/web_tech/how_big_is_the_ftcs_new_fo...


It's amazing isn't it, how lots of people pitching a blog simply do not read it. I give the person a consideration if they at least mention 1 post. I understand they can't spend hours on it, but indicating that they read something about the blog means that they care enough about their product or service, which makes me care just a little bit more too.