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Is the FTC Just ‘Legislating’ Credibility?

anti bribery logoSo on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission voted to update it’s “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” which now require that bloggers disclose connections to advertisers, including payments or free products. I put legislating in quotes in the title because I think, technically, the only group that can “legislate” is the Legislature, and the FTC does something different… I just can’t remember what that’s called.

Initially, I was more than a little peeved about this, and I still have some big concerns about what this might mean. However, thinking about my own blogging and some of the dilemmas I’ve come across made me think that maybe this isn’t the worst idea ever. But hear me out on this one…

Promotions and Endorsements on My Blog

About a month ago I got an e-mail offering me a free book in exchange for publicizing an online, book-related event on my blog. The book looked very good, so I wrote up a post mentioning the event. I also included a note that I was getting a free book in exchange for promoting the event. But I ended up not publishing the post, even with that disclosure, because I don’t want my blog to be a promotion tool. That was a totally personal choice.

Over the next several days, I saw a number of blog posts also mentioning the event but none of them mentioned the free book in exchange for promoting it. I don’t have any idea if those bloggers got the same e-mail offer I did, but I would think disclosing something like that would be important if they had. This hasn’t changed my opinions of those blogs, I just thought it was interesting.

I think disclosing the sources of reviewed material is important. I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s mind about my blog to see that I do occasionally review books I got from publishers and I don’t mind sharing I got the book for review. A blogger’s reputation is built on the credibility and relationship they build with their audience, and for me an important part of that is being open with readers. So disclosing sources for reviewed material or promoted material is important, at least for me, and I’m confident people who hid relationships to dupe people will eventually be exposed in the online court of opinion — problem solved.

Highlighting Some Concerns

That said, I’m not sure I support the idea of requiring disclosure and I’m worried about how the FTC will think about this practice. I think the FTC doesn’t understand a lot of what is happening between book bloggers and publishers, which could make their enforcement make no sense at all.

The interview that most concerns me was done by Edward Champion with the FTC’s Richard Cleland. Champion and Cleland had a “civil but heated conversation,” that’s quite telling. Here’s just one part that worries me:

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

Cleland went on to say that news organization critics are different because he expects them to be paid — by the news organization — and that news organizations money comes from advertising. News critics are somehow more credible that way.

This is partially true; newspapers do get a huge amount of their money from advertising, but there are lots of other economic forces at work on news organizations too. To think that news organization critics are always less biased than bloggers is, I think, misleading.

But by seeing what bloggers do as inherently endorsements, it just looks down on all the great things bloggers are doing. I hope that publishers don’t expect good reviews when they send a book and want them to make that more clear.

I have anecdotal evidence publishers that backs up this hope. Earlier this year I reviewed a book by a smaller publisher and I didn’t love it. I said so in my review, but also noted that the book isn’t normally my genre and linked to other reviews to give more perspectives. I thought the review was fair and honest. A couple weeks ago I got a review offer from the same publisher with a book that seems more my style. I assume this means they found the review fair and think I’ll do so again. I can’t say if this is the attitude of all publishers, but I hope it is.

So What’s My Point?

For now, I’m trying to withhold judgment on the whole idea. I hope the FTC doesn’t just go off the handle fining people and making a big stink. And I hope publishers work with the FTC to help clarify the relationship they have with bloggers so this doesn’t ruin what is a very cool, democratic and interesting way of learning about books. But I don’t know if that’s true, so for now I worry.

How do you feel about the disclosure rules? Is the FTC just requiring something people should be doing anyway? Should consumers just learn to be more skeptical of reviews they read, or is there some element of consumer protection here? Is the FTC setting up unfair differences between bloggers and news organizations?

Image Credit: Neubie via Flickr

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kay October 9, 2009, 10:21 am

    While I don’t mind sharing that I’ve got a certain book via a publisher or an author, I don’t particularly see the reason of doing so. My blog is supposed to contain my thoughts on the books I read, and it does, regardless to the source of one particular book. I’m not trying to hide any relationships, I just don’t see their importance in the matter.

    As for the FTC rules, I think somehow a difference should be made (but yes, I know it’s impossible) between people who state their honest opinion about a product (there are some books I received via publicists that I loved to bits, and said so) and those who tweak the truth to favor a product. I find this (finding the “shady ones”) to be more important than just suspecting everyone regardless to there being a reason or not. It makes me a bit sad to think that, if I get a tremendously good book from a publisher, and write it a tremendous review, people might question my reasons (“oh, she wrote it thus because she had to”) and maybe dismiss the book beforehand.

    • Kim October 11, 2009, 10:52 am

      Yes, the “shady ones” are harder to find and, I hope, what the FTC is focusing on. It seems like they’re worried about bloggers who have very clear monetary connections to a corporation but don’t’ disclose that rather than book bloggers, etc., but aren’t being very clear about it.

      I too hope people who read my blog know me well enough to trust I’d write an honest review regardless of the source.

  • Louise October 9, 2009, 11:26 am

    I am also thinking: I blog in English but am sitting in Denmark. The internet is the www as we all know. Should some publisher in US choose to send me a book for a review, what “laws” will I fall under? Actually, I do have a few more thoughts about this, but will have to log off for a while….will be back.

  • Anastasia October 9, 2009, 1:20 pm

    I think my big thing with the FTC rules is that I do think people should disclosing whether they got a book directly from a publisher/author for free. It just seems more…honest? Not that I don’t trust that that blogger will post a fair and truthful review, but it really bugs me when people post giveaways or other publisher events without saying if they get something in return. I suppose it’s one thing if you’re posting about an event because you think it’s interesting and want help with publicity; I think it’s another thing entirely to post about that event just because you get something free in return if you do. It’s kind of like how it bugs me when people host publisher giveaways and they haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with the author– do they get something in return for hosting it? It actually makes me feel suspicious of that blogger, and that’s not good.

    Anyway, publisher-blogger relationships are complicated, and I haven’t gone into as much detail as I really want to, and I’m probably coming off like a paranoid hater, but basically I think the FTC has good intentions but went about enforcing those intentions in the worst way possible.

    • Kim October 11, 2009, 10:53 am

      “I suppose it’s one thing if you’re posting about an event because you think it’s interesting and want help with publicity; I think it’s another thing entirely to post about that event just because you get something free in return if you do.”

      That was my point almost exactly; I think disclosing something like that is important but I’m not sure if the FTC is in a place to enforce it effectively or fairly. I’m worried about that.

  • Louise October 9, 2009, 1:41 pm

    I’m back 🙂 Had to run suddenly, although I still had something to say. Anyway, since I am in Denmark, I am just not sure about those “new rules” and haven’t really been following it, just on the sidelines. On another blog I remember I wrote that I would publish whatever the heck I want on my blog (keeping within the framework of the law, of course), and I maintain that. To me, mentioning that you got this book for free from a publisher/author is fine, as long as your review is honest. To me it is not that much different from reviews in newspapers, magazines and literary supplements. We all know that reviewers are getting those books for free (or their papers are), and I see a load of bad reviews in papers, mags etc. It IS different, of course, since we are not employed by a paper or mag, and since we do not get paid. I do see that difference. But reviewing has always been this two-sided sword, and what about those bloggers who are friends or relatives of authors and review their books? Are they also included in this “law”? It is going to be interesting to see what will happen.

    Since I do not receive any free books, I personally will not have this “problem”.

    • Kim October 11, 2009, 10:55 am

      I hadn’t thought much about the overseas thing, that does complicate this a lot! You would think the FTC would only be able to “punish” a publisher, not a blogger, but who knows. You bring up a lot of good, complicated points about the law and how reviewing is always a little suspect. I’d imagine all those sorts of people apply, but who knows?

  • Tina Kubala October 9, 2009, 6:17 pm

    I do believe in disclosing sponsorships and freebies. I’ve been writing sponsored content on all kinds of topics almost as long as I have been blogging. It in the best interest of the advertiser and blogger to be transparent. However, I have a major issue with the government holding private citizens to standards that do not apply to the mainstream media. Not cool.

    • Kim October 11, 2009, 10:57 am

      I think transparency is key — it’s a lot better to be honest up front than be caught hiding something later. The two standards thing is frustrating as well.

  • J.T. Oldfield October 10, 2009, 7:37 pm

    So far I haven’t given any really bad reviews of books I receive from authors/publishers, but that might be because I only accept books that seem interesting to me. Overall, I think that this whole thing is crap. Thanks for the links!

    • Kim October 11, 2009, 10:57 am

      I have a luke warm review of a review book and I’m working on one that’ll probably get a bad review. But normally I like the books I read because I mostly know what I’m going to enjoy so of course my reviews are going to reflect that. Annoying!

  • Nicole October 11, 2009, 4:32 pm

    I don’t think that what the FTC is trying to do is unwarranted and it seems to be easy enough to comply, but I am glad that it is being questioned and that people are discussing it, because as you say I think they don’t quite understand the relationship between book bloggers and publishers. I also think they we are being lumped in with something that is being pursued with the hopes of catching much bigger fish. Right now the language is way too broad and sweeping as to be meaningful and is dangerously vague. Some clarification and revisions need to be made.

    • Kim October 13, 2009, 9:20 pm

      Yeah, it’s really not that difficult to just put a little note on a post mentioning a sponsor. Complying might be more difficult on other kinds of blogs, but it seems easy enough for book bloggers. And I think you’re right about the bigger fish thing — frustrating!

  • Jeanne October 12, 2009, 11:21 am

    I think that doctors objected to not being able to prescribe and then sell medicine when those laws were first made, too! (Have you noticed that vets can still do this?)

    • Kim October 13, 2009, 9:20 pm

      Ha ha, funny 🙂