The FTC Goes After Bloggers (Say, What’s a Blogger, Anyhow?)

By  |  Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 5:19 am

The lady in the weight-loss ad who says that she took off a hundred pounds in no time flat. The washed-up minor celebrity doing late night commercials on behalf of some obscure product. And me. We’re all subject to new scrutiny by the FTC, as a result of revised guidelines for “endorsements” of products and services announced on Monday.

Here’s the FTC’s entire document, in case you feel like reading all eighty-one pages (I’ll wait):

Even if you read the whole darn thing, the upshot is hard to summarize. But I’ll give it a try: The FTC is trying to clarify its expectations of paid endorsers, a group into which it lumps real people who givetestimonials in ads, celebrity spokespeople, and bloggers. It wants bloggers who receive products or who otherwise have “material connections” to the companies whose products they write about to disclose the relationship. If they don’t, they’re at risk of receiving a fine of up to $11,000.

As with many things done by most government agencies, there are good intentions here: Thanks to services such as Pay for Post, it’s entirely reasonable to wonder if a rave review you read on the Web from somebody you’ve never heard of is a sincere appraisal–or whether it’s the result of a business transaction. Are there bloggers whose “reviews” are actually paid-for raves, not criticism? You betcha. Does that constitute fraud? I think so.

But the FTC isn’t zeroing in on these fibbers–it’s casting its net to include all bloggers who receive products for review from manufacturers, or who otherwise have those vague “material connections.” That includes a large number of writers whose opinions aren’t for sale. (In this page, I disclose my policies for product loans, travel, and other related matters.)

I don’t mind being held to a high standard. But I’m still scratching my head over exactly how to make the FTC happy. The “material connections” are especially mystifying–since most of Technologizer’s revenue is derived from advertising, and most of our advertisers are technology companies, many of whom we cover in articles, we have “material connections” all over the place. Does the FTC want Technologizer to run a disclosure each time we mention a product from a company who’s advertised on this site? I’m not sure.

My biggest objection to the guidelines is the fact that they fixate on bloggers at all. They specifically say that newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio get something close to a free pass on disclosures:

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 (i.e., where a newspaper, magazine, or television or radio station with independent editorial responsibility assigns an employee to review various products or services as part of his or her official duties, and then publishes those reviews) to be sponsored advertising messages. Accordingly, such reviews are not “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides. Under these circumstances, the Commission believes, knowing 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. Of course, this view could be different if the reviewer were receiving a benefit directly from the manufacturer (or its agent).

In a footnote to the above, the FTC states:

The Commission’s view would be the same if the employee worked for an Internet
news website with independent editorial responsibility, rather than a traditional brick-and mortar periodical.

All of which leaves me wondering: What the heck am I?

When people ask me whether Technologizer is a blog or not, I usually pause, think it over, and then come up with the same answer every time: The posts on the site are displayed in reverse-chronological order on the home page. Which makes this site a blog, and makes me a blogger (along with my fellow Technologizer contributors).

But a blog is only a method of displaying content. One that’s used by everyone from college students to the largest media companies in the land. It has nothing to do with the quality of the content or the business model behind it. And the FTC doesn’t explain what it means by the amazingly nebulous phrase “independent editorial responsibility.”

Is Technologizer not an “Internet news website with independent editorial responsibility” because it’s published in blog format? Are the standards different when PCWorld.com, which is unquestionably an Internet news site, republishes Technologizer posts? Is USA Today’s Ed Baig a different person when his words appear as blog posts than when they appear in a printed newspaper? The FTC either sees distinctions I don’t or has failed to consider such scenarios.

The FTC appears to associate blogs with individuals who don’t write for a living–its document provides an example conflict involving a college student. And it seems to associate newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio with “professionals” who don’t need policing. But one of my goals as a former print guy who now writes almost exclusively for online, on a site I own, is to maintain standards that are at least as high as when I killed trees on behalf of a large publisher. Readers deserve no less.

And speaking of readers, they’re the most appropriate judges of the credibility of blogs and other forms of content. Full disclosure can help keep you well informed about the items you read, but if you doubt a writer’s sincerity, it would be silly to pay any attention whatsoever, whether that person’s stories are rife with disclosures or not.

I believe with all my heart that it’s reasonably easy to find companies that want to advertise in publications (digital or traditional) with loyal readers, but that there’s absolutely no way to regain your reputation once someone decides you’re on the take. My bosses (and the bosses of other Technologizer contributors) are the 400,000 or so folks who read Technologizer each month. And if the day ever comes when that philosophy can’t keep me fed, clothed, and housed, I’ll find another line of work…

More commentary on this matter:

Dan Gillmor

Louis Gray

Jeff Jarvis

Ryan Singel

Brian Solis

 
13 Comments


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7 Comments For This Post

  1. Joe Says:

    Great post, best one so far I read about FTC Guideline changes.

  2. Joe Says:

    Just to add imagine how much TechCrunch would have to pay in fines if FTC would go after them? #Fail

  3. joe c Says:

    I can hear Perez Hilton crapping his pants from here.

  4. Seumas Says:

    Blog is the word given by idiots to what the rest of us have always called “websites”.

    Bloggers are people with websites that are suffering under the delusion that they’re real journalists, just because they spew their bile all over a website every hour or so. The FTC getting involve only further aides in continuing this delusion.

    I think people are generally smart enough to know when someone is clearly being paid off anyway.

  5. Jared Newman Says:

    @Seumas

    Actually, I suffer under the delusion that I’m a real journalist because I’m still paying back the loans for my journalism degree.

  6. DaveZatz Says:

    It’s an interesting development. Probably good intentioned, but won’t really change the situation. And one of the biggest abusers (aka ‘on the take’) I know isn’t a blogger – he does tech spots on radio & tv.

    Like Harry, I return or give away all my review samples and don’t allow companies to fly me around although Ford tried. And the advertising angle is a bit more complex, but nearly all my deals are brokered by third parties like Technorati Media and I have no idea what will run.

  7. Joseph M. Gyulay Says:

    The regulation and disclosure of paid product endorsements should apply equally to all forms of media, not just strictly to bloggers. Product marketing endorsements through media editorial may have numerous creative and hidden methods of (paid) promotion. Any company generally receives favorable press when providing free product samples, lunch, dinner, broadway show and sports tickets to a media executive or editor. Sometimes just the promise of a future advertising contract can get your press release run and a supportive review for your product or industry.

    The attempt to silence the free speech of bloggers with threats financial penalties is wrong. The public can usually distinguish between a simple product review and advertising puffery. Fair enforcement of paid product endorsements should apply to all types of media, not just to the bloggers.

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