By Joan Anderman
Regular visitors to agirlmustshop.com may or may not have noticed that something has changed on Megan Capone’s breezy shopping blog. It’s a tiny thing, really – a few words written in undersize italics at the bottom of a post praising Perricone MD skin products. But the Federal Trade Commission expects this little sentence to have big implications for consumer protection in the Internet age:
Blogger Disclosure: A Girl Must Shop received free product from Perricone MD.
Beginning Dec. 1, 2009, bloggers, Twitterers, and others who write online reviews or endorse products using new media must disclose it when they receive free merchandise or payment for writing about an item. The guidelines update the FTC’s 1980 guide addressing the use of testimonials in advertising, remapping marketing rules for the digital realm, where it’s hard to know if the exclamatory musings of fashion hounds and best-disposable-diaper posts by suburban moms are inspired by a great product or a free product.
“Endorsements in print ads or on television are clear, because it is obviously the company’s advertisement,’’ says Mary Engle, the FTC’s associate director of consumer protection. “It became very clear to us when we began our regular periodic review of guides in 2007 that because of all the social media going on we’d need to update them.’’
At the center of the issue is a question that has plagued consumers of everything from video games to weight loss products since the dawn of the Internet: How does an average reader distinguish between credible news and paid content when anyone with cable service can set up a blog? Fueling the controversy over the guidelines is the fact that mainstream media such as newspapers and magazines are exempt. Some bloggers are offended by what they perceive as an attack on their ethics. Others acknowledge the problem but chalk it up to a few bad apples.
“I can understand the need for it,’’ says Capone, 34, who lives in Dracut. She began adding disclosures in the body of reviews or in a tagline at the end of a posting as soon as the FTC guidelines were announced in October. “I think that some of the bloggers out there have made it bad for the rest of us by doing pay-per-post and portraying themselves as someone doing a review when it’s really a paid ad.’’
Ryan Spaulding of Malden, who launched Ryan’s Smashing Life music blog in 2006, has no intention of complying, arguing that free CDs and show tickets are the tools of his trade.
“I don’t look at it as payment,’’ Spaulding says. “It’s what it takes to get the job done. To me this whole thing is a wide-cast net that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Who’s going to be the first case
In fact, the FTC is not going to be pursuing individual bloggers. The agency will primarily focus on the companies and advertisers that utilize the many forms of word-of-mouth marketing to pitch products – on blogs and Facebook, with street teams, even on sites like Amazon.com that feature user reviews. Still, much of the attention has been trained on bloggers, in particular beauty bloggers and parenting bloggers, among whose ranks the line between advertising and editorial content has grown particularly blurry.
Last year Procter & Gamble wooed 15 influential so-called mommy bloggers – who routinely receive shipments of free product samples from plush toys to strollers – with an all-expenses-paid trip to corporate headquarters, where executives solicited their feedback and touted the company’s charitable efforts, according to a blogger who posts at lilsugar.com. Similarly, publicists regularly deliver pricey cosmetics, skin-care products, clothing, and accessories to fashion bloggers in the hopes of generating online hype.
The bottom line? Readers need to understand the relationship between a reviewer and the company whose products are being reviewed.
“The old joke is that on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog,’’ says Susan Getgood, a Boston-based marketing and social media consultant and cofounder of Blog With Integrity. “But I think that the evolving blog form has self-corrected a lot of that. It’s a person writing a blog, and you can attach qualities to that person. The blog is written by people you like, people just like you, people you trust. That’s why it’s so attractive from a commercial standpoint, and that’s where the disclosure part becomes important.’’
Getgood and several blogger friends created the Blog With Integrity pledge in July as a way for bloggers to express their commitment to an ethical code of conduct. Christine Koh of West Medford, who blogs at bostonmamas.com, took the pledge and displays the Blog With Integrity badge on her site, where she also publishes her product review policies and procedures. While Koh supports the FTC guidelines, she doesn’t believe they are enforceable.
“There must be millions of blogs, and that’s impossible to police,’’ Koh says. “But I think this is being touted as the education phase. The blog space is pretty free-wheeling. People are making it up without the benefit of a journalistic code.’’
Yet some bloggers are crying foul because newspapers and magazines are not subject to the FTC’s new guidelines, even on their websites.
“There are ridiculous amounts of freebies going out to magazines,’’ Capone says. “They say they keep editorial separate from advertising, but it’s not necessarily that way. I can understand wanting to protect consumers, but I don’t think this is fair.’’
The difference, according to Getgood, is that by and large readers already understand that a movie critic attends film screenings for free and that someone else paid for the travel writer’s trip to Cancun.
“There’s a lot of confusion,’’ says Getgood, who recently hosted a webinar with the FTC’s Engle to answer the blog community’s questions about the new guidelines. “It’s not about bloggers being less ethical than journalists. It’s about what the consumer understands. Most people reading a blog don’t expect the mom writing it to be getting truckloads of Pampers delivered to her house.’’ ◊
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.
By Joan Anderman