Commentary

Hey Bloggers! Let's Hear It For Government Regulation!

There was a certain air of inevitability to the Federal Trade Commission's edict earlier this week that bloggers have to disclose when they have a relationship with advertisers. And, even though there are those who would prefer that the industry self-police, I'm with the FTC on this one: Just as ads dolled up to look like editorial or infomercials dolled up with sets to make them look like "The Larry King Show" have to disclose their true nature, bloggers need to account. Many do, many don't, and thus, the FTC needs to be involved.

I know that's not what everyone wants to hear, but we're now living in a world where we are all, prospectively, endorsers, and where industry self-regulation starts to get much more complex than it was when there were a limited number of media outlets. (I'll leave to one side, for the purposes of this column, how the FTC will actually pull this off from a logistical point of view - although no doubt a few good algorithms will help.)

If self-regulating were entirely up to advertisers, that would be one thing - I'm normally a supporter of self-regulation. But in social media, as we've learned time and time again, the message is essentially out of advertisers' control, and while one would hope, via self-regulation, advertisers would monitor those with whom they have a relationship and what they are saying about a product or service - indeed that's the point of having such a relationship in the first place - the actual endorsement is out of their control. Can an advertiser actually reach into someone's blog post and add in disclosure where it doesn't exist? With the exception of adding a comment into the discussion thread, the answer is no, unless I'm missing something.

advertisement

advertisement

The onus has to be put on bloggers to an extent, and with the advent of these new endorsement guidelines, it is. (While, we're on the subject of disclosure, I admit I didn't wade through all 81 pages of the FTC document, but you can right here if you want to.)

People I know, and like, don't necessarily agree with me on this, but I don't view the guidelines as really being about what we generally consider to be the marketing/social media/advertising industry. To us, the fact that bloggers should disclose that they are paid by an advertiser, or gets free product from one, is obvious. To not do so shoots down one's credibility, which is the coin of the realm in social media.

But the people who read this column have all grown up being schooled in this tradition. As social media tools come into broader use, more and more people without that grounding are going to become part of the conversation. If the history of so-called "mommy bloggers" is any guide, advertisers will reach out to them.

That said, I still think there's ample room for some of the initiatives already out there to help develop a code of conduct for blogging, such as Blog with Integrity. (I tried to get in touch with Liz Gumbinner, who is one of the bloggers behind it, to get a few thoughts, but she is currently out of the email sphere.)

There's still a need for bloggers to let it be known that not only do they play by the FTC's rules but also are being honest and transparent, no matter what the topic. Thankfully, that's something no government organization can regulate.

13 comments about "Hey Bloggers! Let's Hear It For Government Regulation!".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 7, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.

    I think there needs to be greater consistency of philosophy on the topic of government regulation. If you believe that government should be small, and vote accordingly, then you can resist expansion of FTC interference. If you believe that government should be large, and vote accordingly, then you should welcome more FTC rules.

  2. Kat Rice, October 7, 2009 at 2:34 p.m.

    I'm sorry, I agree completely with the need for transparency, but I do not think it needs to be regulated by the government. If a company or blogger isn't being transparent that should be relatively obvious by reading about them and reviewing their business practices. If they don't meet standards don't read or buy from them. The power should belong to the consumer not the government. Personally I believe the average person has a good enough head on their shoulders to distinguish between who to trust or not. I'm all for truth in advertising and for keeping people accountable but not through federal regulation. Its not (or shouldn't be) the role of government.

  3. Nina Zapala from Anson-Stoner, October 7, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

    Oh no, not more government involvement. I like the author didn't read 81 pages of Federal "speak" but one thing I feel pretty confident about is how will they regulate this, hire more government workers to do what. Isn't the online world all about transparency? Overtime the bloggers who are in bed with their advertisers will be revealed and the people will act accordingly not the government. Again, as in life their are no easy roads, just pragmatic paths that lead to sensible outcomes. The government is not the answer in this case.

  4. Les Blatt from Freelance New Media Person, October 7, 2009 at 2:43 p.m.

    I'm afraid I'm with Kat Rice on this one: "the power should belong to the consumer not the government." As I understand it, the FTC will take it upon itself to selectively enforce the regulation...against whom? Probably not me - I'm pretty small potatos. Against someone with a wider readership who happens to disagree with government policy? Quite possibly. I don't think that's paranoia. I have always argued for transparency, and I believe in it and practice it without government help. I'd prefer to keep it that way.

  5. Nicole Brady from SahmReviews.com, October 7, 2009 at 2:47 p.m.

    My only concern is what exactly are they expecting. As a blogger, I acknowledge if a product was sent to me by a company like BzzAgent, Mom Central, BSM Media, etc. Other times, I say "When my PR company asked if I wanted it try this..." But is that good enough? Do these new guidelines want us to say "I received this product valued at $x from ABC Company for the purpose of reviewing it and providing my opinions."

    And for all those people who utilize Twitter to tout products they received through a partnership/sponsorship/advertiser, how on earth can they disclose AND comment in 140 characters?

    I understand that something was needed but they certainly didn't delve far enough in or receive enough blogger input to make a clear and effective guideline.

    But that's just my opinion... and nobody paid me to give it.

  6. Michael Rubin from Fifth Third Bank, October 7, 2009 at 3:10 p.m.

    Kat, Nina, Les -- The reality of the situation is that a great majority of folks who blog and endorse products for which they were provided some sort of compensation (which could be anything from cash to a freebie) don't disclose their relationship.

    This happens ALL. THE. TIME. Even today during my casual browsing, I saw several examples where a blogger or commenter didn't disclose that they were an employee of the company that produced a product, or that they had some tangential relationship (e.g., they worked for the agency that helps promote the product) with it.

    I'd love to say that they were called out on the carpet for their ridiculously duplicious behavior. But they weren't.

    -------

    We all need to remember two things:

    1. People all over are reacting with hysteria like the FTC just came up with this over brunch last Sunday. They didn't just come up with these regs out of thin air, folks. They've been in development for several years, and many of the industry organizations that help both consumers and organizations navigate social media and WOMM helped shape these revisions. (*)

    The hype would have you believe that these orgs don't care an iota about transparency. Don't believe it, because it's not true.

    2. Disclosure on an individual level doesn't have to be hard. It's as simple as 10 magic words: "I work for <company> and this is my personal opinion." Why people make it to be so much harder than that is beyond me.

    (*) Disclosure: I used to work for WOMMA and the Blog Council, where I worked to help further the cause of transparency in social media. I currently work for Empower MediaMarketing, where I make a living advising on social media for clients, but this is my opinion.

  7. Jonathan Boehman from Immersion Active, October 7, 2009 at 3:45 p.m.

    A friend of my business partner's had a really interesting take on this whole regulation: "It would only be fair that politicians in turn wear the the names of their 'sponsors' on their clothing (like a Nascar driver)"

    I agree with Michael Rubin (comment above) that disclosure on an individual level doesn't have to be hard, but the question is "How obvious does the disclosure need to be?" I don't think the lawmakers have thought about what constitutes acceptable disclosure, or how to enforce violations.

    I do think the regulation is a positive thing--it's meant to protect consumers, and it won't be a panacea, but hopefully it will help. But it would be nice to have our nation's lawmakers hold themselves to the same standards they impose on their constituents.

  8. Donna DeClemente from DDC Marketing Group, October 7, 2009 at 9:07 p.m.

    Hi Catharine, I display the Blog with Integrity badge on my blog, Donna's Promo Talk. It is also displayed on the Lip-sticking Blog which I'm a guest blogger on that is headed up by Yvonne DiVita who was just on the mommy blogger panel you moderated at OMMA Global. Yvonne introduced me to Susan Getgood a couple of years ago at BlogHer when I was new to the blogoshpere as it used to be called back then. Susan is one of the four women bloggers behind the Blog with Integrity initiative and would be a great resource for you to speak with since you can't reach Liz. You can find out more about them and the pledge at www.blogintegrity.com.
    Donna

  9. Yvonne Divita from BlogPaws, October 9, 2009 at 8:16 a.m.

    Well, Cathy, I know the FTC is just trying to protect me. So they say. They, as a gov't agency, are not out to protect me, IMHO. They are bored, decided not to go after the existing advertising that blatantly ignores truth in advertising, and decided to take on the bloggers. Because, after all, it's easy to accuse bloggers of bad things.

    If a blogger is not being open, honest and authentic... he or she will be found out. Look at Walmart... Look at Sony. The system IS working. Heck, Blog with Integrity and WOMMA are policing the system just fine, IMHO.

    So, while I understand the purpose behind the FTC - I object on the grounds that they have bigger fish to fry and just don't want to go there. They prefer to go after the little guy. It's what government does. In fact, I mentioned on my blog, www.lipsticking.com several ways I think the FTC is failing us as consumers - which should be addressed now. We all know they won't go there.

    They are too busy hounding bloggers. Just MHO. (Nicole captured my feelings exactly - she is right on)

  10. Michael Rubin from Fifth Third Bank, October 9, 2009 at 11:06 a.m.

    To quote my favorite clown ... "Oyyyyyyyy."

    The misperceptions surrounding these guidelines are staggering. We really need to dispel some myths:

    MYTH: The government is going after individual bloggers.
    FACT: This is so blatantly false, I can't believe this meme is still out there. The FTC is looking at patterns of behavior over a duration of time. They are not trolling blogs for violations. They are focusing on advertisers who promote their products with false claims, celebrities who give false endorsements, stealth marketers who go into forums or comment on blogs under a false name or anonymous ID, and marketers who work with bloggers and then tell them to pretend they were not influenced by cash, free gifts, and swag.

    Besides, they CANNOT instigate an investigation on their own. The FTC looks at *PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOR* over a long duration of time. Their investigations can only be initiated when they are brought a complaint from a consumer advocacy group, any chapter of the Better Business Bureau, or one of the 50 states' attorneys general.

    MYTH: The FTC has a staff with nothing better to do than troll the blogosphere looking for violations.
    FACT: They readily admit that they don't have anywhere close the kind of staff that could do this even if they were interested in doing it in the first place.

    MYTH: They are going after the wrong people. The individual is getting screwed over while the biggest scammers are getting away with murder.
    FACT: The revisions were done in the first place specifically to address:

    a. The blatant lies advertisers were spreading ("I lost 50 lbs. in 5 days just by taking this pill! -- Results may vary.),

    b. To uncover undisclosed endorsements ("I love Vitavitavegamin -- it tastes just like candy and you should try it, too!")

    c. To put a stop to crass companies like IZEA that peddle in payola and then wrap themselves in the Transparency flag when they are called on their heinousness.

    d. To put a stop to the evil practice of stealth marketing.

    Ignore the echo chamber, people! Spreading the lies and myths is what gives bloggers a bad reputation.

    Disclosure: Same one as before. I worked for organizations that helped shape these guidelines and have actively worked to promote transparency and ethics-based WOMM.

  11. Yvonne Divita from BlogPaws, October 9, 2009 at 11:54 a.m.

    So, Michael, why do we need the FTC...if the orgs you worked for are already doing the job?

  12. Dan Rua from Inflexion Partners, October 9, 2009 at 12:12 p.m.

    @Michael: Although I agree with most of your mythbusting, I think your focus on IZEA is misguided. As a blogger, advertiser and investor with IZEA, I'm pretty excited by the FTC's move to level the playing field for everyone playing in IZEA's sponsored conversations category -- particularly those that tried claiming soft-money influence via products, passes etc. didn't need to be disclosed (I think you'd agree the new FTC examples & WOMMA code cover this specifically). As with most all regulatory oversight, compliance will benefit from good tools to educate, disclose and monitor engagements; something IZEA layed out in their recent "FTC Compliance Made Easy" post: http://izea.com/ftc-compliance-easy/

    With compliance tools like those available, I'm not sure it will be wise for brands/agencies to rely on ad-hoc phone/emails to manage engagements going forward. There are always two steps to regulatory compliance: 1) doing what is required and 2) documenting that you did what was required.

  13. Kristin Thompson from RedShift, October 28, 2009 at 2:17 p.m.

    "I know that's not what everyone wants to hear, but we're now living in a world where we are all, prospectively, endorsers, and where industry self-regulation starts to get much more complex than it was when there were a limited number of media outlets." It's true. Overnight twelebrities haveunbeknownst and inconceivable overnight. I don't know the solution but it will and is becoming a problem. Experts and celebrities are at least educated and guided but what the hell do youtube stars know about legalese and endorsing new products?

    http://www.redshiftagency.com/

Next story loading loading..