FTC Declines To Sue HP For Giving Bloggers Swag
Hewlett-Packard and its public relations company, Porter Novelli, got a pass from the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly giving bloggers swag to encourage them to write about the tech company's products.
HP and Porter Novelli allegedly gave some bloggers $50 gift certificates for themselves, as well as $50 gift cards to give to readers. The bloggers who received the gift cards were asked to write about HP "Inkology" -- a campaign aimed at encouraging people to print at home using HP products.
FTC Associate Director Mary Engle told lawyers for HP and Porter Novelli that the FTC was concerned that most bloggers disclosed that they received $50 gift cards to give away -- but didn't reveal that they got $50 to keep. The FTC Act "requires the disclosure of a connection between an advertiser and an endorser when such a relationship is not otherwise apparent from the context of the communication that contains the endorsement," she wrote in a letter dated Sept. 27.
Nonetheless, she told the companies, the FTC has no plans to undertake an enforcement action. Engle said there were a few reasons why the FTC was going to drop the matter. One is that "a relatively small number of bloggers posted content about HP Inkology after receiving the gift pack and a few of those bloggers did adequately disclose their material connections."
Notably, one of them -- who called herself a "compensated brand ambassador" -- told readers she was going to keep both gift cards, according to Engle.
Engle also said that both companies have revised their written social media policies, adding that the FTC "expects that HP and Porter Novelli will take reasonable steps to monitor bloggers' compliance with the obligation to disclose gifts they receive."
Since issuing its revised endorsement guidelines three years ago, the FTC has issued similar letters -- including one to Ann Taylor Loft -- but doesn't appear to have brought a case against a major retailer that allegedly gave swag to a blogger.
Regardless, the guides themselves remain controversial -- largely because they treat bloggers differently than writers for mainstream media outlets. Specifically, the FTC takes the position that bloggers need to disclose any freebies. But the agency has never held mainstream media outlets to the same standard.
Obviously, not all mainstream media reporters receive gift cards per se from the companies they write about. But many journalists routinely receive other forms of freebies -- ranging from relatively inexpensive material like review copies of books and DVDs to more pricey freebies, like travel junkets -- without disclosing them.
There's a good argument that readers would be well-served if everyone -- mainstream journalists and bloggers alike -- made full disclosures of swag. But it's hard to see any justification for holding bloggers to more stringent standards than other writers.