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10/25/2009 Blogging and Transparency

This originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio, October 23, 2009.

The Federal Trade Commission recently created new rules about endorsing products and that got the blogosphere in a tizzy. Basically the FTC said that if bloggers receive free products from companies, and then blog about those products, they have to let people know about it. The FTC views this as a type of paid endorsement.

A lot of people reacted negatively. For the most part they didn't want any rules at all. And they certainly didn't want more rules than anybody else.

As a medium that prides itself on openness and transparency, though, it was a little odd to see these reactions about making people actually accountable for openness and transparency. That's one of the best things about the online space: sooner or later the truth surfaces. Even if it sometimes has to slog through a lot of noise to get there.

For example, a few years ago Walmart launched a blog "Wal-Marting Across America" featuring a married couple traveling across the U.S. writing about happy Walmarts and happy Walmart employees. Problem was, it turned out that it was all a public relations ploy. The tour came to a screeching halt and Walmart's PR firm turned from blogging to crisis management.

But the reality is that brands now recognize the power that word of mouth plays online. Most of us go online to research everything we buy. We look for personal opinions on things like baby strollers, travel destinations, and cars. So companies decided to see if they could influence the influencers. They sent them free products and asked them to write about them.

Trouble is, when we get something for free, we tend to look at it more favorably. The good bloggers fess up immediately but more than a few don't. Now, the FTC has made it a rule that you HAVE to tell when you get a product for free, or else.

You know, I like this FTC idea so much I'd like to see it in more places. Like when a politician in Washington debates health care or some other issue, I'd like to see them start their speeches with "I've received thousands of dollars from the insurance lobby, but I'd still like to say this about health care." Or how about some of the news "analysts" who show up on lots of talk shows but who actually work for the companies they're talking about.  The only thing we'd need to do is to think up some good punishments!

Or maybe this is just sour grape since I've yet to receive anything for free in return for blogging about something. Companies do ask me to write about them and when I do, I always tell people that they've asked me to do so. In fact sometimes I end up paying for what I write about!

But even then, I still have a line I just won't cross. Like the time I received a request to review  a an, ahem, Flatulence App for the iPhone. I couldn't figure out what would've been worse: paying three-ninety-nine for the app itself, or admitting that someone actually asked me to write about it.


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