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Commentary And Analysis: The FTC's New Blogger And Social Media Advertiser Guides

On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (PDF). The Guides were issued pursuant to the FTCs authority, as granted by Congress in Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. 45, to protect consumers from deceptive trade practices with regard to endorsements and testimonials in advertising.

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The Guides, which take effect on December 1, 2009, are the first updates to the advertising guidelines since 1980. This post provides an overview of the Guides and what they mean for small and independent bloggers and business owners. While I am an attorney, this summary does not provide legal advice for your specific situation. If you need a legal opinion about how the Guides apply to your business, please consult an attorney. (I can help you find one if needed.) The Guides consist of 81 pages, and this post was produced after one reading. It may contain errors, and if and when any are found, I will update the post. If you want to skip my introductory commentary and go straight to the Guides, then scroll down to “What The Guides Say.” If all you want is “The Quick And Dirty,” then scroll down to that heading.

Background: Your New Career As Publisher

Last year, I published a post entitled, “Your New Career: Publisher.” In it, I said:

To succeed in business today, …you have to use the Internet to connect with people. You have to be heard above the noise by creating genuine opportunities for your customers to interact with you and with each other. Thanks to technology, this is neither difficult nor expensive. You have to be your own media outlet, providing your target audience with the kind of interesting content that draws them in and connects them to you.

The year before that, in a post about how to pitch your products to bloggers, I said this:

If you pay a blogger to review your product, that’s an advertisement, not a product review. Reputable product reviewers almost always post an editorial policy at their site so you can see whether they require or accept payment before they post a product review. Readers are savvy enough to know that if money changes hands, they are not getting an objective product review. For maximum credibility, check the blogger’s site to see if they tell their readers that they do not accept payment in exchange for reviews.

The promulgation by the FTC of the new Guides formally merge the concepts in my posts by recognizing that today, everyone is a potentially profitable media outlet and, as such, has a responsibility to exercise their influence in ways that are honest and transparent.

Because of the Internet and other new technologies, you and I have the power to compete in meaningful ways for the attention of people who were once a captive audience for large, multi-national corporations.

It is not now, nor has it ever been, legal for anyone to lie in order to sell a product. That’s nothing new.

What is new (well, not that new — see below) is that today, there’s a whole new cast of characters when it comes to advertising. In years past, when companies wanted to spread the word about their products, they purchased an ad. Businesses competed to purchase eyes and ears in the form of radio listeners, television viewers and magazine and newspaper readers. Those willing to part with enough money enjoyed a certain amount of time to advertise products and services to a certain number of eyes and ears. That’s how traditional advertising works.

The Media Is You!

Today, eyes and ears are no longer glued to traditional television shows, radio programs, print magazines and newspapers. Instead, they are everywhere, including on my blog and yours, and on my radio show and yours, and on my YouTube pagee and yours, and on my Twitter page and yours, and on my newsletter and yours.

Since eyes and ears are a moving target these days, traditional advertising no longer cuts the mustard as it once did. Today, the potential for deception exists not only in regard to traditional advertising, wherever it may appear, but also in regard to endorsements that appear in our blogs, newsletters, Twitter pages, social networks, etc.

The newly issued Guides expand what most of us think of as “the media” to include blogs that are owned by your average, everyday consumer. They also expand what most of us think of as “advertising” to include paid testimonials and celebrity endorsements that appear in blogs that are also managed by regular folks.

The law has not changed, but the group of people who fall within the purview of it has expanded to include a type of media outlet that was not contemplated when the law was enacted. Now, bloggers, social networkers and newsletter publishers like you and me are specifically covered by the FTC’s false and deceptive trade practice laws.

Interestingly, the new Guides are designed to protect us as consumers, and simultaneously regulate us as bloggers.

However awkward and ironic that may be, bloggers like you and me really aren’t so “new.” I’ve been reviewing consumer products since the publication of my first online newsletter on January 16, 2000, when I reviewed candles, handmade soap and men’s facial toning spray. These products were given to me for review by members of IBN. (Oooops! Didn’t disclose that …) Over the years, I’ve published thousands of product reviews in my newsletter, at my blogs and on various social networks including IBN’s. I bet many of you have too!

What The Guides Say

This section provides a high level overview of what the Guides say about how particular content will be treated when it amounts to an endorsement at your blog, social network or other online New Media outlet. If it is an endorsement, certain disclosure requirements apply. If it is not an endorsement, the disclosure requirements do not apply.

The Kind of Content Covered: “Endorsements”

Rather than look at “who” is covered by these Guides, it’s best to look “what” is covered by the Guides.

The central issue is what kind of content is covered. This is so because, no matter who you are, if the content you produce fits a certain description, it is an endorsement and the Guides apply. And they apply with equal force whether you are Suzy Homemaker or Oprah Winfrey.

If you manage a New Media outlet, your first question will be whether particular content in your publication is covered by the Guides. Here’s the answer. If it is an endorsement, it’s covered by the Guides and must comply with them. If it is not an endorsement, it is not covered by the Guides.

The Guides define an endorsement as:

… [a]n advertising message (including verbal statements, demonstrations, or depictions of the name, signature, likeness or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual or the name or seal of an organization) that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser, even if the views expressed by that party are identical to
those of the sponsoring advertiser. The party whose opinions, beliefs, findings, or experience the message appears to reflect will be called the endorser and may be an individual, group, or institution.

This is a fancy definition, I know. But we all pretty much know an ad or an endorsement when we see one. In essence, it boils down to the following:

if you were paid to publish the content, (either in cash or in the form of free products or anything else of value), the content is an endorsement, and the existence of payment must be disclosed

if you have an ongoing relationship, such as an independent contractor arrangement with a network marketing company, and you publish content about their product or service, the content is an endorsement, and the relationship must be disclosed

if you publish content as part of an organized word of mouth marketing program at your blog, social network or other New Media outlet, the content is an endorsement, and you must disclose the fact that the content is part of an organized campaign

if you regularly review products that you receive from a particular company, type of company or group of companies, the content is an endorsement, and you must disclose the fact that your regularly review products that are a part of a particular company or group

The Guides are far more detailed than this, and they contain specific examples and nuances designed to help you as a content producer or advertiser decide whether a particular piece of content is or is not an endorsement. You can read these examples at your leisure, starting on page 61. The Guides state that all scenarios will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Chances are you will find a situation that resembles yours in the Examples starting at page 61.

Product or Service Suppliers: Advertisers

Because artisans, crafters and Indies are often both content producers and suppliers (sometimes even in the same article!), it is important to know how your actions are viewed by the Guides under both scenarios. When you are supplying the products that someone else is reviewing as part of a social media campaign, you may be considered an advertiser, and as such, your conduct is covered by the Guides.

The important thing to remember here is that, as the advertiser, you can be held liable for false or unsubstantiated statements made through endorsements, even if you are not the direct source of the false statements. For example, if you work with a New Media outlet to create a social media campaign to promote your products or services, you must make sure not only that the owner of the Media Outlet makes disclosure, but also that the others promoting your products at the site make disclosure. Thus, when you know that people at a blog or social network will be spreading the word about your products or services, you should make sure that they know about the disclosure requirements and do not violate them.

You should also insist that the owner of the New Media outlet where your campaign appears monitors activity there to ensure that proper disclosures are made by all, and that any misstatements are immediately corrected.

Type of Disclosure Required

The Guides say that, when content amounts to an endorsement, the relationship between the content producer and the product or service being reviewed must be fully disclosed so that anyone consuming the content is aware of the relationship. The disclosure must be meaningful. In other words, it must be clear, and conspicuous and understandable to the average consumer.

The Guides do not specify particular language that must be used in a disclosure. For a single product review, it could be as simple as disclosing that the product you are reviewing was sent to you at no cost to you, along with a request to review the product.

The more involved a campaign is, the more detailed the disclosure may need to be. For example, if a supplier asks you to review a new product (which they send you for free), and also asks you to ask your readers to re-post your review on their blogs, thereby multiplying the visibility of a favorable review, you and the supplier will want to make sure that re-posters use an appropriate disclosures as well. In this way, the hundreds of people who read a re-post know that it is the result of a review of a product that the original reviewer received for free or as part of an organized marketing campaign.

While Twitter, FaceBook and social networks where all types of blogs appear are not specifically mentioned in the Guides, it seems clear to me that you do not have to own the new Media outlet in order for content you post there to be covered by the Guides. I think there’s no doubt that the scope of the Guides extends beyond your branded blogs to cover your Twitter, FaceBook and LinkedIn pages, as well as comments posted to other people’s blogs, as well as blogs, groups and discussions that you are belong to at various other social networks. I suppose it could even apply to actions you take to Digg posts. After all, when you click to Digg something, you are in effect endorsing something, and you are adding content to a New Media outlet.

This Digg example may not be a stretch, but my point is that the owner and type of New Media outlet does not matter much. What matters is the content found there. If the content is an endorsement, the Guides apply no matter what form the content takes or who owns the space where the content appears.

Penalties

A violation of the Guides could result in penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. Such liability could attach if the FTC initiates and wins an action in federal court. There may also be some agency or arbitration proceedings that could result in liability, but I have not investigated that yet. I suppose the FTC also has authority to issue cease and desist letters in an effort to stop violations before resorting to formal litigation.

A few reports I saw earlier this week (namely this one and this one) indicate that the penalty is $11,000 for each violation, I cannot find this figure anywhere. According to 15 U.S.C. 45, the statute pursuant to which (as far as I can tell) the Guides were promulgated, the correct amount is $10,000 per violation. If you can find the $11,00 figure anywhere, please let me know so I can correct this post.

The Quick And Dirty

For Bloggers: If you manage or use a blog, a social network, a Twitter account, a FaceBook account and any other kind of New Media outlet, even if you do not consider yourself to be a blogger or a business owner, and even if you do not own the site you are managing or using, the Guides apply to the content at the New Media outlet.

Always disclose the relationships between you and the people, products and services you endorse at your sites. Whether you are paid $1,000 or all you get is a free bottle of lotion, disclose the fact of value received and you will likely be in compliance with the Guides.

You should also post Editorial Policies at your site(s) so there is no doubt about how you handle the required disclosures. Make sure your employees, virtual assistants and others are familiar with your Editorial Policies and follow them. (Read this entire post and the Guides to be sure you inform yourself fully.)

For Advertisers: If you are an advertiser using bloggers and other forms of New Media to spread the word about your products, work with them to ensure that they make the proper disclosures. Also, to the extent possible, make sure they monitor their site and site users to ensure that the proper disclosures “follow” the endorsement wherever it goes.

You should also post Editorial Policies at your site(s) so there is no doubt about how you handle the required disclosures. Make sure your employees, virtual assistants and others are familiar with your Editorial Policies and follow them. (Read this entire post and the Guides to be sure you inform yourself fully.)

For Everyone: These Guides and recent advances in technology have benefited all of us. As consumers, we have more options. As small and independent business owners, we have more profit-making opportunities.

But there’s no such thing as “something for nothing.” If we want to profit from new technologies, we have to be accountable for how we use them.

These new Guides and other laws, rules, regulations and policies are filtering down to us quickly and we have to remain vigilant. We must inform ourselves, our customers and other stakeholders. We must keep up with the latest rules and policies as they are promulgated by legislators and policy makers at the state and local level.

If you want to join me in an effort to make sure that our voices continue to be heard, and that future laws and rules do not have an adverse and unduly burdensome impact on small and independent business owners, please join me on FaceBook at the Indie Business Page where I am coordinating efforts expand my advocacy efforts on behalf of small businesses nationwide.

Questions and Conclusions

Whether a violation could result in a fine of $10,000 or $11,000, it’s clear that the FTC is taking aim at everyone who seeks to profit unscrupulously from New Media opportunities.

The disclosure requirements in the Guides sound good in theory. Who could argue with a requirement that bloggers disclose that they are raving about a product that was given to them by the manufacturer, or that the manufacturer paid for their endorsement?

The challenge I see is in enforcing the Guides. How on earth will the federal government have the resources to troll the Internet, find potential violators, monitor their blogs to assess the scope of an alleged violation, conduct an investigation, issue warnings or cease and desist letters and perhaps file suit in federal court to hold violators accountable? And even if they can do that, how will they do it uniformly and fairly across the board?

I’ve also been wondering why all this fuss is being made about bloggers and social media users, when television shows are filled with undisclosed sponsored product placements. They are not required by law to disclose that the product I see on my screen was placed there only because the manufacturer paid thousands of dollars (or more) for the privilege. (Are they?) This seems unfair to me.

(As an interesting side note, many actors are not happy about this either. When they perform in a show or movie, they are paid to act, not to endorse products. If a media outlet is paid because an actor drinks a particular kind of soda as part of a scene, the actor should be paid extra for that.)

Congress has empowered the FTC to do what it can to protect consumers from false and deceptive trade practices. Since consumers are turning in massive numbers to New Media to collect the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions, it stands to reason that the FTC would at least attempt to put everyone on notice that, even if you are a stay-at-home mom with a fun hobby blog, you must tell your readers when a company has somehow compensated you for a product review.

Tell The Truth

What this is really all about is telling the truth. And isn’t that what social media is about? Honest, open and transparent communication.

While I’m not saying that your sincere efforts to always tell the truth excuse you from reading and complying with the Guides, they will go a long way toward helping you comply with them — without even trying.

Honesty is, and has always been, the best policy.

Questions:What do you thin of the new Guides? Do you think it’s fair for all people with blogs to be includes, even if they are not “bloggers?” Are you going to post an Editorial Policy at your blog and other social media sites?

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  • http://www.southernsoapers.com/ Kelly Bloom

    holy smokes… this is very good, and very in depth. I will be re reading this a few times to absorb it all.

    THANK you for the detailed synopsis/perspective on this new info!

  • http://www.southernsoapers.com Kelly Bloom

    holy smokes… this is very good, and very in depth. I will be re reading this a few times to absorb it all.

    THANK you for the detailed synopsis/perspective on this new info!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Indie_Business Indie_Business

    I'm pleased that you find it useful, Kelly!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Indie_Business Indie_Business

    I'm pleased that you find it useful, Kelly!

  • http://www.anniesgoathill.com/ Mary

    I am also doing my second read right now. And I will be reading it again. Just cannot be too careful!

    Thank you Donna Maria!

  • http://www.anniesgoathill.com Mary

    I am also doing my second read right now. And I will be reading it again. Just cannot be too careful!

    Thank you Donna Maria!

  • http://sheabath.etsy.com/ Diana

    Good to know and I am with you on why there is a need for regulation in the social media arena. I will have to digest this several times.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Indie_Business Donna Maria

      I think there need to be some guidelines, but the real question is how to narrowly tailor them so free speech is not curtailed, and also, how to fairly enforce them. As always, the devil is in the details!

  • http://sheabath.etsy.com Diana

    Good to know and I am with you on why there is a need for regulation in the social media arena. I will have to digest this several times.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Indie_Business Donna Maria

      I think there need to be some guidelines, but the real question is how to narrowly tailor them so free speech is not curtailed, and also, how to fairly enforce them. As always, the devil is in the details!

  • http://www.essentialwholesale.com/ Kayla @EssentialU

    Thanks dM for your timely and thorough information. You are so awesome.

  • http://www.essentialwholesale.com Kayla @EssentialU

    Thanks dM for your timely and thorough information. You are so awesome.

  • Vicki

    How does this affect a company posting testimonials from customers who bought and liked their product on the company's public website? In other words, Sally buys lotion, Sally likes the lotion, Sally tells the company she likes the lotion, the company asks Sally if they can post her testimonial on their website, no compensation is exchanged, and the company posts Sally's testimonial.

    • http://www.indiebusinessnetwork.com/ Donna Maria

      Vicki, while I cannot give legal advice on the question, it seems to me that language from the Example 1 on pages 65-66 indicate that the the company has an obligation to obtain "adequate substantiation that new users typically will experience results similar to those experienced by the testimonialist" before using the testimonial. This conclusion follows the spirit of the guidelines, which is to put responsibility on companies selling products to make sure that testimonials have a foundation in some truth before posting them for the world to see. My statements here are not conclusive — please remember that. As always, the devil is in the details, and the guidelines themselves are "guidelines," and each case would be interpreted by the FTC on its own merits. Thank you for your thoughtful question! I hope this helps and look forward to other commenter thoughts on the matter.

  • Vicki

    How does this affect a company posting testimonials from customers who bought and liked their product on the company's public website? In other words, Sally buys lotion, Sally likes the lotion, Sally tells the company she likes the lotion, the company asks Sally if they can post her testimonial on their website, no compensation is exchanged, and the company posts Sally's testimonial.

    • http://www.indiebusinessblog.com Donna Maria

      Vicki, while I cannot give legal advice on the question, it seems to me that language from the Example 1 on pages 65-66 indicate that the the company has an obligation to obtain "adequate substantiation that new users typically will experience results similar to those experienced by the testimonialist" before using the testimonial. This conclusion follows the spirit of the guidelines, which is to put responsibility on companies selling products to make sure that testimonials have a foundation in some truth before posting them for the world to see. My statements here are not conclusive — please remember that. As always, the devil is in the details, and the guidelines themselves are "guidelines," and each case would be interpreted by the FTC on its own merits. Thank you for your thoughtful question! I hope this helps and look forward to other commenter thoughts on the matter.

  • http://mainelementlove.com/blog Tyrika

    Am I understanding this to mean that for every product review on my blog I need to disclose the value in the post itself or can I have a page dedicated that gives a generalized overview (i.e. "product reviews on this blog have been compensated for by the manufacturer" or something to that effect)?

    • http://www.indiebusinessnetwork.com/ Donna Maria

      Tyrika: Good question. Hard to say without a context, but here's generally what seems correct. (Remember, it's not legal advice.) If you are reviewing a product, you are probably going to disclose the price as part of the review, right? So that takes care of the price issue. As for how to disclose that it was given to you (or that you didn't have to pay for it), you can say that right in the review — (Donna sent me 3 of her locations, or I ordered 3 of Donna's lotions or whatever.) The best thing to do ultimately is to have an editorial policy page at your blog that provides an overview of how things work, your conditions, etc. It will always be fluid of course — nothing much written in stone these days. Change it when you need to. I'm sure as time passes, there will be some great "template" for such policies and I will post them here as I learn of them. I hope this helps. Thanks for your question!

  • http://mainelementlove.com/blog Tyrika

    Am I understanding this to mean that for every product review on my blog I need to disclose the value in the post itself or can I have a page dedicated that gives a generalized overview (i.e. "product reviews on this blog have been compensated for by the manufacturer" or something to that effect)?

    • http://www.indiebusinessblog.com Donna Maria

      Tyrika: Good question. Hard to say without a context, but here's generally what seems correct. (Remember, it's not legal advice.) If you are reviewing a product, you are probably going to disclose the price as part of the review, right? So that takes care of the price issue. As for how to disclose that it was given to you (or that you didn't have to pay for it), you can say that right in the review — (Donna sent me 3 of her locations, or I ordered 3 of Donna's lotions or whatever.) The best thing to do ultimately is to have an editorial policy page at your blog that provides an overview of how things work, your conditions, etc. It will always be fluid of course — nothing much written in stone these days. Change it when you need to. I'm sure as time passes, there will be some great "template" for such policies and I will post them here as I learn of them. I hope this helps. Thanks for your question!