FTC Puts Onus On Marketers, Not Bloggers
First of all, bloggers, you're safe from the Federal Trade Commission -- at least for now. Marketers -- you may want to be careful, however.
That's the upshot of further clarification provided by Mary Engle, associate director of advertising practices for the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, during a call with reporters Wednesday morning regarding the newly released guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials, which go into effect on Dec. 1.
The guidelines call for advertisers and bloggers to disclose payment or receipt of goods or services in exchange for promotion. The onus for this disclosure will be on the marketers -- not on individual bloggers, who would be realistically hard to track, Engle said.
"We will be focusing our efforts on advertisers, not on individual bloggers," she said. "We know there are hundreds of thousands of blogs, only a fraction of which are involved in marketing anyway. We're not going to be patrolling the blogosphere."
As such, marketers using bloggers to promote their products will have to instruct those bloggers to disclose financial arrangements in their promotion. Products submitted for review or nominal free samples would not necessarily immediately fall under scrutiny, although that could change if a reviewer consistently gives positive comments to a marketer's products.
"The occasional free sample is not something that would change the expectations of the audience. But if that changes, we'd have to regulate it," Engle says. "In general, if someone is reviewing a product and there's no guarantee of coverage, that's not a problem. But that could change if the reviewer is always offering a good review."
Marketers who want to use bloggers as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign may continue to do so, although disclosure will be required at some point. "We recognize that some marketers [like movie or video game makers] may want to play a game," Engle said. "We're not ruling that out. But somewhere along the line, the consumer needs to understand the truth."
In general, the new guidelines are intended to offer more clarity for consumers and marketers as social media gains importance as a marketing tool. They are also intended to cut down on fake blogs and the most egregious instances of blogger payment, Engle said. "[It's] not always black-and-white -- we understand that," Engle said. "If someone is getting paid, that's pretty black-and-white."
The revised guidelines are also intended to control the use of outlying examples to promote a client's products or services, such as the ones in which a weight loss company uses a testimonial and then uses a "results not typical" disclaimer. "If [marketers] want to make claims outside of the average, then they do need to explain what the average might be," Engle said. "If they want to use that outlier result, they need to say what people can [generally] expect."
However, violating the guidelines will not be met with a fine or other punishment, Engle said. "They are guidelines -- not rules and regulations -- they do not have the force of law," she said. Violating the guidelines would result in an FTC investigation into deceptive practices and perhaps a complaint or court order, she said.