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• Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Are non-bloggers idiots?. . . and bloggers are liars and cheats. That’s what the U.S. Government seems to think anyway.

The U.S. Government has started rattling its sword at bloggers, saying it thinks bloggers should disclose when they have been paid (or given a free product) for a review.

The FTC guidelines concerning endorsements and testimonials already contain this text: “endorsements must reflect the honest opinions or experience of the endorser, and may not convey any representation that would be deceptive if made directly by the advertiser.”  In other words, anyone that does an endorsement must tell the truth.  If we, as bloggers, choose to endorse a product or service, we are already bound by this guideline. Why must we also tell people it’s a paid (or traded) endorsement?  Why the second rule?  Is the Government foolish enough to think that a blogger who is already breaking the honesty rule will think twice about breaking the notification rule?

I’m not so naive as to think that there are not bloggers in the world whose good review can be bought, or even companies that will fake reviews – I know they exist.  We all know.  I suspect, the public at large knows it too.  To support their logic for adding new rules, the FTC pointed out a few companies that were in blatant violation of existing guidelines.   One company, Urban Nutrition, created www.weknowdiets.com and www.googlediets.com.  These web sites gave the illusion of real product reviews.  However, the sites always had Urban Nutrition’s own products listed as the best.  Reading about it sounds bad, but when you look at the sites, I think you’ll agree that any reasonable person could conclude they are full of crap.  In my opinion, adding a notification to these sites would not have made a difference.

Does the Government think people are so dumb they won’t notice when every review a blogger does for a company is positive?  Or, will they not notice that some links are more prominent than others?  Do they think people read one review on one blog and say to themselves “OH.MY.GOD! I have to buy that right now!”  It seems that they do.

The truth is, when people shop for almost anything they rarely buy the first thing the salesperson shows them.  Most of us get second, third or even fourth opinions.  Are these pants too big? Noooo, they are great, just cinch ‘em.

Linda A. Goldstein, an advertising industry lawyer is quoted in a recent NY Times article as saying: “It’s analogous to a studio inviting critics to a free premiere. Taken to its logical conclusion, those critics would have to disclose in their review that they were allowed to see the movie for free.”

What’s next? If my kid gets a free balloon at our local pizza joint, will I be required to disclose that to my co-workers when I tell them the pizza was good? Will they then be less likely to believe me? Would Stone Phillips appear from thin air and bust me on national television if I didn’t tell anyone about the free balloon?

We already have enough rules the Government can’t possible enforce – why add to the list? Let’s all starting using the thing between our ears, and show them we’ll be fine without protection from the big bad bloggers.

My point is that people have to use their head for more than just a hat rack. Sure it’d be nice to live in a world where nobody lied and everyone was happy all the time, but then there always be that witch flying over head doing her crazy sky-writing about Dorothy. We can’t sit back and expect the government to protect us from everyone and everything that might be even a little bit bad for us.  As a people, we shouldn’t even WANT that.  We have to think for ourselves.  We have to be smart, informed consumers.

After all, this is the Internet, not the wonderful world of Oz.

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Category: Rants
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18 Responses

  1. 1
    Simon Salt  //

    I agree with you for the most part, however, I think the FTC ruling about disclosing whether or not a blogger was paid for an endorsement is simply a way of opening the door for the IRS to start clawing tax from bloggers who receive either financial or in-kind payments for endorsements. Suddenly that free “widget” worth $3000 doesn’t seem like a bargain now that you have to pay tax on it does it.

  2. 2
    Jack Leblond  //

    Good point Simon, I hadn’t considered that one. Uncle Sam will get us one way or another.

  3. I agree with you on pretty much all counts. As a blogger who has written compensated reviews, I have no problem disclosing such a relationship. I’ve always been honest, even when my opinion is negative. (Though I do try to say at least one positive thing. If there isn’t something positive, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)

    But the fact that I legally will have to do so kind of sucks. People aren’t that stupid. Sure, there are gullible people out there who will believe anything, but a disclosure statement isn’t going to help them anyways.

    On the other hand, I know there are disreputable bloggers out there who have been shilling products under the radar who are probably making out rather well because of it. The regulations should level the playing field so they can’t get away with that sort of crap anymore. But we get back to the problem of enforcement, and there are spammy blogs out there that already break existing laws, and no one’s doing anything about them. They’re the ones we need to crack down on.

    I’m talking myself in circles, and I’ll stop myself before I get even more convoluted in my reasoning. I’m playing by the rules because that’s who I am. I’m a law-abiding citizen who could run for public office without an opponent ever turning up anything worse than a single speeding ticket. As far as I’m concerned, the FTC is just making me add more fine print to my blog footer, which is annoying because of the clutter. They need to target the real problem, which really isn’t bloggers at large.

  4. 4
    Jack Leblond  //

    So true – more fine print won’t fix anything. Enforce the existing rules first, then reassess if needed.

  5. 5
    Marc Meyer  //

    You had me nodding my head and laughing all in the same breath. Unfortunately, I’ve seen first hand the FTC step in and rip a site I had full of genuine testimonials to bits and essentially say I couldn’t use them because they were not true and not indicative of the product. Hey I didn’t write it, they did, it was their opinion, not mine. Didn’t matter. So I agree with you. Most of us can make pretty informed decisions on our own. Let’s not forget, ” I’m not a doctor but I play one on television…”

  6. 6
    Jack Leblond  //

    My favorite TV disclaimer is “I am a paid, non-attorney, spokesperson.” Apparently, without that I should assume that all commercial voice-overs are done for free, by attorneys, that work for the company? Right?

  7. 7
    Levi Wardell  //

    Couldn’t agree more here, Jack. This really goes back to the simple fact that humans really need to loosen up, use some common sense, and get back to simply trying to live an ethical life rather than looking for a quick buck or step up in life.

    Hold on. Need to take a sip of this delicious Coke. MMM. ahh, that was great AND I think I just lost weight simply by drinking delicious Coke.

    Anyway, if you really think about it Uncle Sam is no better than any dishonest blogger. All The Man is trying to do is benefit financially from the opportunities that exist online; regardless of ethical responsibility.

    NOTICE – This comment was paid for in part by… wait… no it wasn’t.

  8. 8
    Jack Leblond  //

    I better go buy me a case of Coke…and maybe stock in the company too – thanks for the tip!

  9. 9
    Jay Ehret  //

    I guess it’s a good thing the government doesn’t have anything better to do than police the bloggers.

    This also raises the question about Twitter, which is micro-blogging. I see tweets all the time that I know have sponsorship behind them. Should tweets now carry a disclaimer too?

  10. 10
    Dana Lookadoo  //

    Jack, This is outrageous!

    The govt is working its way into our online lives at an accelerated rate. I won’t go into a political rant and try to stay away from such. Unfortunately, our taxes pay for the cost of writing and enforcing these mandates. Does using “one’s head for more than just a hat rack” have to be legislated??

    Maybe the govt feels its losing control due to the influence of bloggers, and they want to ensure they get their % of taxes.

    Thanks for the enlightenment! Be careful, if we complain too much, we’ll be turned in!

  11. 11
    Jack Leblond  //

    Taxes may well be the reasoning behind this – if all the bloggers have “I was paid for this” on the applicable posts the IRS could find them with a simple google search. Maybe something “who has 2 nickels in their pocket?”

  12. 12
    @joannalord  //

    Great post Jack, I am actually happy to see so many people talking themselves in circles re:all the comments. As a consumer of so many blogs on a daily basis, I have grown frustrated by the number of “sponsored” posts, and perhaps more importantly–grown frustrated knowing that less evolved readers are most likely persuaded by these “warm fuzzy” articles without knowing their sponsored nature.
    With that said, as a blogger, I can say that I always note when I am giving an opinion on a product that I have been given for free, or compensated to write on. I think its part of the post experience by saying “listen, I was prompted to review (______) lets go through the good and bad of it together.” Much like Christina said, I always try to get at least one good thing in there and some negatives to provide the most fair assessment of anything, even if compensated for my words.
    Lastly, I think Dana hits it dead on when she suggests this ruling really reflects the governments insecurities regarding our influence as bloggers, and due to that I think we all better get used to these dialogs, because this surely wont be the last rule they change in hopes of tightening the reigns…

  13. 13
    Jack Leblond  //

    If the review is detailed, I agree that it will have both good and bad points. It’s pretty rare to find a product or service that is useless, or one that is perfect. If you are honest in your review, what can be gained by disclosing whether or not you were paid for the review? If the FTC is correct, your readers will actually be skeptical of you. If you are dishonest, will the disclosure make any difference? I don’t think it will.

  14. 14
    Monica Wright  //

    Excellent post Jack. Of course you can see the FCC having a heyday. It’s called payola in radio, and as you know it’s an absolute no-no. I’m pretty close to the radio industry, and even if you MENTION where you ate over the weekend you cannot accept any kind of incentive in return. And if you do, it’s turned over, period. Of course blogging is a lot different than radio, but it’s still content that is requested to be broadcast. It’s still all corporate-run BS that as a result of one, possibly iffy, payola blogger all others need to suffer.

  15. 15
    Jack Leblond  //

    If we were to apply the radio market model to blogs, we could have banner ads, or other content – but no reviews/recommendations. Which might also mean no links to other sites. Thankfully we don’t have such strict rules – yet.

  16. 16
    Ileane  //

    I’m not so sure about all of this Jack and here’s why. I was in advertising many years ago and learned so much about the tricks advertisers use to “trick you” into trying their products, that I got to a point where I began to ignore ads (as much a humanly possible). So now that I am blogging and visiting other blogs, and I see all of these ads flashing across the top and alongside of articles I am amazed at how much money some bloggers are making. You mean to tell me that people actually click on those ads?? Yup, guess they do because tons of very reputable bloggers with excellent content are getting paid with AdSense and AdWords etc. The latest advertising trick I saw was on YouTube. I pulled up a video of someone that I know I wanted to subscribe to, as soon as I was about to hit the subscribe button, an ad popped up and the subscribe button moved down and if I hadn’t been paying close attention I could have easily clicked on the ad. My point here is that there should be some notice to consumers so that they will know – even if something doesn’t look like an ad, doesn’t smell like an ad, it’s an ad. Thanks for letting me speak.

  17. 17
    Jack Leblond  //

    But does imposing rules on otherwise honest companies/bloggers help? Those that do things right will continue to do so, but with the added disclaimers that make consumers suspicious when there is no reason to be. Those that don’t do things right will just find a new trick to skirt around the rules.

  18. 18
    Ileane  //

    Point well taken. And I forgot to mention that I did enjoy reading the post, and I gave it a Sphinn.

    Thanks.

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