Posted October 16, 2009 3:46 pm by with 3 comments

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Dollars FloatingIn case you’ve missed it, the FTC has finally finalized its new blogging guidelines—including an up-to-$11,000 fine for not disclosing free products or other remuneration given for product reviews (or maybe not). Naturally, this has caused an uproar in the blogosphere—and now the president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Randall Rothenberg, has written an open letter to the FTC objecting to the new guidelines (via).

He reports that he nearly tweeted about a delicious bass halibut he cooked this weekend—until he remembered he’d received the cookbook for free review 13 years ago. But the real issue isn’t restricting his free fish speech. It’s

the implication that online social media represent a separate class of communications channels with less Constitutional protection than corporate-owned newspapers, radio stations, or cable television networks is of particularly grave concern.

[We] are not arguing that bloggers and social media be treated differently than incumbent media. . . . Rather, we’re saying the new conversational media should be accorded the same rights and freedoms as other communications channels.

All of us would agree that false and deceptive advertising should be stopped, and penalized when it slips through and is caught. We agree that paid testimonials and endorsements should be labeled. But in taking business ethics and attempting to give it the force of law, the Commission is stretching the definition of remuneration to ludicrous lengths. (emphasis added)

Another interesting take against the FTC guidelines is the fact that book and product bloggers may not give guaranteed access. Unlike in advertising, where you pay for not only airtime but craft the message yourself, in product reviews, you often have no control over when (or even if) the review will be posted, and what the review will say.

(On the other hand, plenty of bloggers will guarantee access simply for shipping a product to them, and plenty of PR and marketing people sign up people for a blog tour slot before sending them a product to guarantee their participation.)

Personally, I’ve received things like books, diapers and paper towels for review on my blog. Not all of them have made it onto a blog, however. It’s hard to imagine Bounty (I can’t even remember if it was them who sent it, but close enough) being fined $11,000 for a review of two rolls of paper towels (you know, <$2 of merchandise).

On the other hand, the FTC is especially concerned with an ongoing relationship—like if you review one publisher’s (free) books a lot. (But at some point, doesn’t the fact that they’re free kind of diminish the impact on your review over time? I mean, after the fifth free book, is it even that big of a deal to get another?)

It’s not going to hurt a book review or a product review to disclose that you got a free one to read/try. It may influence how your readers think about your review—it may influence how you thought about the product, whether you’d like to admit it or not.

What do you think? Should there be some sort of lower limit on the value of products that bloggers must disclose? Should bloggers be more concerned with disclosing relationships? Should the FTC be more concerned with newspapers et al., even though the way they do things is well-established?

  • I can understand attacking scammers and false advertisers, but there are a ton of bloggers out there who generate decent income reviewing relevant and tried products. These reviews benefit the buyers when done correctly, because they can get information from a source they have come to trust.

    Not only does an $11,000 fine make an impact on new bloggers who can’t afford it, it also damages their credibility considerably. This is a bit harsh…
    .-= Corey Freeman´s last blog ..Are You a Writing Marine? =-.

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  • Is this really such a problem that it warrants to FTC wasting so much time on it? Doesn’t this sort of police itself when people do discover a blogger is not disclosing their paid relationship and have been giving favorable reviews as a result that their credibility drops to nil? Nothing really stays hidden long on the web. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I wasn’t aware that paid blog posts were disrupting the economy so much and duping the public in droves to buy products under false pretenses. Don’t we have like major issues with credit lending and investment scams preying on financial crisis fears we should be focusing on?
    .-= Terry Howard´s last blog ..Commissioner Infantini Wrong on Parking Meters =-.