October 16th, 2009
Bloggers have arrived. It’s true, because the Federal Trade Commission recently decided to impose rules on us. All together now: Wooo … hey, wait a minute!
Starting December 1, bloggers, and even users of Twitter and Facebook, “who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently,” reported the New York Times. “For bloggers who review products, this means that the days of an unimpeded flow of giveaways may be over. More broadly, 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.”
Hmmm, where to start. Disclosure? Well of course people should disclose when they’re compensated for endorsing stuff. But what is “compensation?” What is “endorsing?” Do I have to spell out that free booze is involved whenever I write about a promotional event hosted by a liquor company? Then there are product reviews. Those aren’t generally my game, but, given that this is a blog about drinking, I do discuss products from time to time — products I’ve paid for and products I haven’t. In this review of ri(1) whiskey, was it enough to disclose that I got a bottle of the stuff in the mail and let readers make the assumption? Or do I have to come right out and say that it was a gift, or, let’s cut to the chase, a bribe? Does the fact that I didn’t exactly endorse the whiskey count for anything? Or does merely devoting a post to it mean that I’m promoting it? Can you say can o’ worms?
The FTC ruling is aimed partly at celebrity bloggers who don’t disclose their ties to companies. Fair enough. But most bloggers aren’t celebrities, and I’m guessing most would laugh at the notion that they’re recipients of “an unimpeded flow of giveaways.” Certainly, there are bloggers out there who act as stealth spokesmen. I’ve been approached by some small companies — you know, people who make novelty coasters and stuff — asking if I’d write a positive review of their products in exchange for a little cash. Ewww. Like I’m going to whore myself out to these guys for $50. But some people do just that, or such solicitations wouldn’t exist. The thing is, it’s pretty easy to ID the bloggers who are only in it for free product — their blogs are boring, and no one reads them.
The other issue here is, are bloggers and the rest of the social media world being unfairly singled out? Some people think so. But … don’t the FTC’s rules about deceptive advertising practices apply to other forms of media? That’s why movie producers are always getting slapped with big fines for product placement in their films, and travel writers are punished for free hotel-room stays, and the beer newspaper I once wrote for was ordered to cease and desist the practice of taking free samples of IPA.
So why make a point of applying the rulebook to social media without renewing the commitment to crack down on pay-for-play in the traditional media? Because, as the Times article points out, “sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs, have offered companies new opportunities to pitch products with endorsements that carry a veneer of authenticity because they seem to be straight from the mouth — or keyboard — of an individual consumer.” In other words, it’s worse to be deceived by a close friend than by a stranger.
Very few social media mavens are losing sleep over any of this, of course. I mean, besides the fact that there are a couple hundred million of us for the FTC to monitor, we realize that the regulators are lagging adorably behind reality. Sure, a few people have no doubt been tricked into buying Nikes because some celeb got paid to blog about sneakers. But the online world evolves quickly, and, personally, I think its denizens are more savvy than they get credit for. Plus, if the feds came after me for not disclosing that those drinks I had at the Grand Marnier party were free, I’d gain such notoriety that I probably could get an endorsement deal. Hello, Beefeater?