Attention bloggers . . . as of December 1, you are accountable for reporting any freebies you get in exchange for arranged exposure - at least I think that's right. At a long 81 pages long, the FTC guide concerning the endorsements and testimonials in advertising is a challenge to interpret. Unless, of course, you're a lawyer. Everyone seems to understand that violators will be charged up to $11,000. Numbers are easier to get than contractual language.
Specifically covered in the new rules is the use of social media, such as Twitter, by celebrities to endorse a product. That's now a no-no unless the commercial relationship is disclosed. So, too, are celebrity mentions of products in other media, such as talk shows. But the new rules on blogging will have the farthest-reaching influence. They are, in effect, the first rules imposed on a general public that no longer needs access to TV, print or radio to publish opinions or create a personal media channel.
Beyond that, I'm not sure I get it all. Disclosure: no one's ever sent me a free product to review. I got a book once, but the topic didn't seem to fit what my readers would be interested in. Shutterstock did give me a complimentary 3-month subscription with the understanding that I would credit the photos like the one that goes with this post. That's something I'd do anyway. Who doesn't credit cool art?
Let's say that changes. What if I get products for review? What if I have a corporate sponsor [yes, I am looking and open to opportunities]? What's the best way to identify the sponsor throughout the social system? Is it as easy as skateboarders who, once they get sponsored, become branded as part of the company that funds them?
What about affiliate commissions?
FTC Guidelines and Affiliate Marketing
Hat tip to Artist Tara Reed for sending me over to read what Geno Prussakov wrote about the FTC on Affiliate Marketing Blog, which gives an instructive overview and is even optimistic about the good that will come out of disclosure.
I do not believe this should have any negative effect on affiliates that are really adding value for the end user. To provide a simple example, if a blog with a built-in shopping comparison engine (run by an affiliate) that receives commission of every sale they refer to merchants offers a helpful tool for shoppers to compare products across several different merchants, and blogs about them and their products daily, discloses its relationship with these merchants, it will only spell out their honesty and add more credibility to the affiliate’s website.
What freebies do I get right now? Conference admissions in exchange for covering sessions.
Even then there are usually no expectations, suggestions or requirements to get the free ticket. Most of the time, like at BlogWorld Expo, I'll be a member of the media corps. Why do I do that? I like free tickets. But, more importantly I like the prestige that comes with being selected to cover what I truly feel is a newsworthy event. I think back to the times I wished I could buy a ticket or fund a trip and was left sitting at home alone wondering what I was missing. These are the people I'm writing for.
Bloggers, Brands and Freebies
In July, BlogHer came to Chicago and Social Media Club Chicago hosted a panel about women, blogging and social media. Much of the talk among the celeb-type bloggers was that they were lifestyle blogs and immune from this kind of regulation. After all, would the feds go after, say, Britney [wait-does she have a blog? she does have a social media manager known as an innovator] for mentioning the sunglasses she wears. I think about the stars on the red carpet who obviously get compensated for wearing designer duds - are they regulated?
Fashion Print Mags Exempt?
So, what is the word over at the fashion scene? Here's Fashionista's take:
The New York Times wrote, “the move suggests that the government is intent on bringing to bear on the Internet the same sorts of regulations that have governed other forms of media, like television or print,” as if it’s a compliment; blogs are suddenly legitimate. Which is great. Except that print publications, at least the ones we pay attention to, aren’t held to the same standards. In fact, basically every element of a fashion magazine is free, from the clothes on the editors’ backs to the blonde dye in their hair.
Back to bloggers, PR and reviews. . .
Why would you write a testimonial or endorse a product in exchange for money? If the product is a $40 sweater and the time it takes to write the review is worth it, how will disclosing that you got the product for free affect the reader's decision to buy? What and how much do you need to disclose to meet the guidelines? Do you need an attorney?
Bloggers and the Stuff Exchange: Is it worth it?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I was one of the few bloggers to thank the companies who gave me so much/ free stuff at a BlogHer event. They didn't ask me to write about it or to review their products, almost none of which fit my reader demographic, but I wanted to show my gratitude somehow so I wrote Bloggers and Brands: The Stuff Exchange. From a branding, exposure and PR perspective, I'm not sure what, if anything, the companies got out of showering us with their freebies. What do you get out of giving out free stuff if nobody ever hears about it?
PR Week Weighs in on Placement and Influence
Here's what PR Week had to say about paying for editorial placement. . . .
PR practitioners know that secretly paying for editorial placement or editorial influence and failing to disclose the exchange of value or “quid pro quo” flouts fundamental tenets of truth and transparency. Known as “pay for play,” this practice also runs afoul of specific tenets of the PRSA's Code of Ethics.
The key words here: secretly, failing, flouts. Maybe the switch needs to be to: open, agreeing, complies
How will the FTC enforce the guidelines? Ron May of The May Report wonders about enforceability . . .
Of course the big news is the new FTC guidelines on blogs and payola for bloggers. All that must be disclosed now and there are big fines if it is not disclosed. And enforceability is a huge issue. How much work will they put into catching violators?
Fast Company Gets Your FDC Questions Answered
Thanks to Steve Rubel for pointing out that Fast Company is taking bloggers' questions for Richard Cleland, assistant director, division of advertising practices at the FTC at ideas@ fastcompany.com
Here's what Mr. Cleland has to say about enforceability:
“We’d alert Web sites to potential problems and then invite them to contact us about questions of compliance. I don’t think it’s a matter of the enforcement side being weak but the most cost-effective tool in our arsenal. In this case, we’re going to rely more on voluntary compliance than prosecution. That’s the most likely source that we’ll be able to use to identify a problem, and if we do see a problem at a ground level and then ask the right questions, we’ll figure out why there’s a problem pretty quickly and go from there.” Also, Cleland adds, “Competitors are very quick to turn people in. I’ve never suffered from a shortage of competitive complaints.”
Tell Us: What's your take?