A view from a blogger outside the USA about the FTC’s new “guidance” on disclosure
One of my first thoughts on learning this week of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announcement on endorsements and testimonials was that as I don’t live in the US it does not apply to me.
One of my next thoughts was that it may be only a matter of time before there is an international conference of trade practices regulators and other countries will think, “What a great idea!” and play follow-the-leader.
So my freedom from living under the threat of fines or worse for recommending a friend’s book or course or whatever may be short-lived. Then too, I don’t have a problem with the principle of disclosure, although from what I’ve been reading around the blogosphere, I wonder if the public servants have made one of those classic mistakes, of creating a set of rules that can’t practically be enforced in any equitable way: I don’t include in “equitable” any selective targeting and cherry-picking of particular offenders or groups, by way of making an example of a few hapless bloggers and others who may be reported by competitors (see below for high level testimony to the FTC’s reliance on informers).
Before I go on, and in case you didn’t catch the buzz on this matter this week and what it has to do with blogging, basically the FTC announced that it has approved final revisions to the guidance it gives to advertisers on how to keep their endorsement and testimonial ads in line with the FTC Act. Significantly for bloggers, the sub-heading on the release on the FTC site is “Changes Affect Testimonial Advertisements, Bloggers, Celebrity Endorsements”.
The full 81 page document, which can be downloaded from the FTC site, has the formal title: “.16 C.F.R. Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising: Notice Announcing Adoption of Revised Guides” and is referred to in the announcement as “the Guides”.
Some Views Around the Blogosphere
Bloggers’ concerns with the FTC announcement are encapsulated in the (wish I’d thought it up) header to Frederic Lardinois’ post on ReadWriteWeb:
FTC to Bloggers: Disclose Freebies or Face $11,000 Fine
Hat tip to Barbara Rozgonyi for her extensive roundup of views and quotes from various sources, including a very informative post by Jennifer Villaga at FastCompany with a series of comments by Richard Cleland, assistant director, division of advertising practices at the FTC. Short story? Cleland is not impressed by “$11,000 Fines!” headlines on the subject and is at pains to present the Guides in a less scary light. The sting in the tail of his comments is that competitors are quick to report others and declares that the FTC has never wanted for offers in that regard (interesting: in Australia we call this “dobbing” and it is not a complimentary term).
In a typically thoughtful post Louis Gray tells us why he is not unduly perturbed by the Guides and offers an interesting reason as to why he does not think there will be much impact on bloggers –
Because good people will continue to be good, and bad people will continue to be bad. The people who have been in a gray area thus far, and have chosen not to disclose, will likely continue to not disclose – FTC regulations or not.
He hopes bloggers who have a regular commercial arrangement with companies will have a disclosure link on their site.
In that regard I had noted previously, and quite like, the way Chris Brogan has included a Disclosures and Relationships segment on the About page of his blog.
I’m also comfortable with referencing in or at the end of a blog post that some links may have the potential to bring me some commission (as for instance with this post today on another site), however modest that may be (I don’t think I have ever had a cheque from Amazon, as the commission totals have never hit the amount required to trigger one!).
So I am fairly well disposed to the idea of the Guides insofar as they are aimed at serving the community.
And as I said at the outset of this post, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before other regulatory authorities, including our currently rather gung-ho Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), decide they too want one of those Guides things and are able to persuade their political masters that this would A Good Thing (and did someone say “electorally attractive”?). So if I tighten up my act now I won’t have much need to worry when and if that happens.
Finally, given that some 50% or so of readers of this blog and about 75% of readers of my Thinking Home Business blog are in the US, I’d prefer to have practices in place that are no doubt going to become fairly standard and that readers will therefore come to expect (even for blogs being published from elsewhere and pace Louis Gray’s hunch that the “bad guys” operating in the gray zone will not opt for more transparent habits).
Please share your thoughts on this.