FTC’s Material Disclosure Equals Best Practice for Bloggers
This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.
Last November, the Federal Trade Commission caused a group heart attack among bloggers and online advertisers when the agency announced its intention to regulate online endorsements. As the new rules debut this month, however, the only bloggers with cause to fear are the ones who consider their viewers purely as a means to a financial end, rather than as a community of real people worthy of respect.
Beginning December 1st, bloggers who receive compensation or freebies of any sort from advertisers or businesses whose products they review must disclose these material transactions publicly to viewers. (Download the new rules in PDF format.) Bloggers who don’t disclose such transactions will risk fines of up to $11,000, potential take-down injunctions, and orders to reimburse duped viewers.
That means legions of “mommy bloggers”, product reviewers, and anyone else providing an online testimonial for a product or service involving a material payment or freebie will now have to specifically state what they’ve received, when, and from whom. Some of the above scribes already disclose such transactions–the FTC’s aim with the new regulations is to force out of the closet bloggers and reviewers not wishing to disclose that by dint of commercial sponsorship, they might not be providing honest opinions on products they’re asking their viewers to purchase.
It’s about time. As I wrote back in June, one of the fundamental principles of the blogosphere is transparency. Transparency breeds trust, and trust breeds a community of viewers willing not only to read a blogger’s words, but to evangelize that blog to others. That’s the kind of relationship most bloggers dream of having with their audiences.
It’s also an easy relationship to achieve. You just need to do one thing: tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Today’s blog audiences are very savvy. They don’t like being lied to, and they can detect artifice deception bullshit a mile a way. And if your viewers don’t smell it, your colleagues eventually will. It’s pretty hard to keep secrets online, so why risk alienating the people who read your site–thus ruining your reputation and wrecking your ability to make a living online?
Recently, the Chicago Tribune lauded journalism as embodying the gold standard of best practices regarding reviews and testimonials, because in most cases anything provided for review is returned. That’s an example of bullshit, too. Just because a material relationship exists between a reviewer and an advertiser does not automatically mean the resulting review is dishonest. The Trib’s opinion here is based in the assumption that rational citizens cannot make up their own minds about rightness, justice, and honesty without journalism there to tell them what’s what. It’s no secret what I think of that perspective. (Insert bull bellow here.)
Human beings, whether congregating on the Internet or anywhere else, are not idiots. Blog viewers on a daily basis decide for themselves on the trustworthiness of the bloggers whom they read, and the disclosure of a material relationship is but one of many factors they take into account. Some openly compensated bloggers are very well received by their viewers. Others would probably be drummed off the Internet if they came clean about the freebies they regularly receive. Online audiences can, do, and will continue to discern trustworthy bloggers on their own, using the innate ability to think for themselves that God saw fit to deposit in their non-journalistic noggins.
That’s not to say the blogosphere’s tendency toward self-regulation renders the new FTC rules unnecessary (as BusinessWeek‘s Blogspotting column suggests.) Receiving a freebie for reviewing a product is not a dishonorable practice. A trustworthy blogger can receive a freebie and still maintain an objective opinion. What is less above board is the desire by some bloggers to keep their viewers from knowing that their opinions may be compensated ones. By masquerading as uncompensated scribes, these bloggers steal from their viewers the right to decide for themselves whether the content they’re reading is honest, thus subverting one of the primary principles of the Internet. The new FTC regulations will ensure rogue bloggers can no longer rewrite the Web’s community standards in their own favor.
Neither is it likely that the blogger-aimed stream of testimonial-related compensation and freebies is over, as the New York Times suggested last week. The practice may lessen, but unless wholesale hordes of viewers abandon mommy and product blogs that disclose their material relationships come December 1st, why would advertisers throw out the window what up to now has been a very remunerative way of doing business? Media Post News notes the ad industry is already claiming immunity under the Communications Decency Act from liability regarding scofflaw blog posts, so if I were the Times, I wouldn’t count out those mommy bloggers just yet.
For everyone else, simply abiding by the basic community standards of the Internet should keep any blogger from running afoul of the FTC. It doesn’t matter if you received a five-dollar fee, disclose. A free meal? Disclose. A fancy trip? Disclose. If you’re asking the people who read your blog to make money for the people who help you make money, disclose.
If you respect your audience at all, disclose, disclose, disclose. You needn’t preface your announcement with a marching band, a simple, parenthetical sentence will do. If your audience respects you back–if they trust you–you have nothing to worry about.
If they start jumping ship, you have far deeper problems than merely being a former blogging bullshit artist. In that case, I suggest a change of scene. Getting away from it all might help you figure out how to resurrect your image. No sense in torturing yourself by reading all those nasty comments your ex-viewers will leave as they exit, either. Head somewhere without a WiFi connection.