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Bloggers Affected by FTC Ruling

Be CarefulWhat You Review On-line, the FTC is Watching

New FTC Guidelines Affect Bloggers 

On Monday, Oct 5, 2009, the FTC directly touched the lives of some bloggers with its decision to regulate certain blogging activity. 

Specifically, the agency addressed  blog posts that review a product or service. Under its new set of guidelines,  if you endorse a product or service in your post,or tweet about it, and receive any cash or "in-kind payments," you are now required to disclose your relationship with the manufacturer.

What makes this unique, is it's the first time the agency specifically cited blogging activity as well as "new media." That activity extends to Ulitzer, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites where reviewers might write posts/tweets about products.

What Did the FTC Do?

The agency revised its "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising" relating to "material connections,"  i.e., payments between an advertiser and someone who endorses their product.  The last time the FTC revised its guidelines was in 1980, and the changes reflect the role of "new media" in advertising.

The new guidelines specifically cite blog posts and "word of mouth marketers"  who act as potential endorsers. If you review, recommend or endorse a product or service on line, you should read the FTC's revised guidelines. (click on "Text of the Federal Register").

These guidelines are not law. They define how the FTC interprets existing laws. But violations can carry a fine of up to $11,000 per post.

What Does the Ruling Mean for Bloggers?

•    If you write a blog post blog and give your opinion about a product or service,  you are now required to disclose if the company gave you any cash payments.

•    If you tweet and give your opinion about a product or service,  you are also now required to disclose if the company gave you any "in-kind payments."

The key is disclosure. No matter what you have been given by the manufacturer, by acknowledging that you accepted payment or an item "in-kind," you are NOT violating the guidelines.

Specific Blog Post Examples

To help clarify its "material connections" revisions, the agency offered examples of blogging activity:

"A blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it...  In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an “endorsement” within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests.  If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be endorsements."

Despite a number of such examples, the average blogger might be confused by the ruling.:

•    If you tweet to your friend that you just got a sample of a product in the mail and you really liked it, is that in violation of the guidelines?
•    If a company sends you a computer to review and you post comments on your blog, are you taking "in-kind payments"?
•    If an on-line retailer gives you a gift card for its site, and all you have to do is review its new product line, are you running afoul of the FTC ruling?

Wait and See

These new guidelines raise many questions that will be part of the on-line conversation for some time to come.  On-line advertising and endorsement is a gray area with little existing case law to cover the Internet and its burgeoning legions of reviewers, both professional and casual. The FTC is hoping its new guidelines will help shed light on this growing relationship between advertisers and on-line reviewers.

More Stories By Loraine Antrim

Loraine Antrim is co-founder of Core Ideas Communication, a communications consulting agency focused on presentation development and media training for C-suite executives. Core Ideas enables executives to package and communicate relevant and compelling messages in their presentations and interviews. Loraine's expertise is killing butterflies. You know, butterflies: the feeling in your stomach before you have to present or speak in public. Loraine works with executives to create a powerful story, memorable messages and an authentic delivery style. Confidence kicks in, and butterflies scatter. Nice work killing butterflies! You can contact Loraine at: manager at coreideas.com