2 posts categorized "FTC"

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.
10/22/2009 The FTC, the IAB, and Me

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced guidelines on blogging and testimonials. Basically, the FTC is trying to get ahead of the curve by setting guidelines on product endorsements and testimonials. They want bloggers to come clean if they've received free products in exchange for reviews. They believe, correctly for the most part, that the simple act of receiving something for free might influence what people write. The part that has everyone up in arms is that the FTC reserves the right to prosecute those who don't follow the rules.

Personally, I have no problem with honesty guidelines. They're very easy to follow. I believe that online should be BETTER than other media: more open, transparent and honest. The FTC guidelines are a challenge to us online marketers to walk the walk. I think we should take the challenge to do more than the FTC asks.

Of all the reactions online against the FTC guidelines (and there were a ton), the one that got the most play was from Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). What most irritated Mr. Rothenberg was that the FTC had put more stringent guidelines on bloggers than it has on most other media. "Unfair," cried Rothenberg! "Beware Big Brother," wailed the head of the IAB on a site with direct links to IAB guidelines!

Why, I thought, would an organization whose main output consists of online advertising guidelines be so opposed to blogger guidelines? Is it because IAB can't really prosecute anyone itself?

So I dug in a little and found:

The IAB's number one objective is to "fend off adverse legislation and regulation." That's right, it's not to make online advertising better, it's to keep the Feds out. It sounds like something straight from Wall Street. Just let the market take care of itself, and everything will be fine.

It's last objective is to create a force to "balance power of other media..." which is kind of funny, since the IAB's executive board consists of people from the NYT, CBS, NBC, and Conde Nast. Foxes in the hen house (where is FOX, by the way?).

My real bone with the IAB is that they seem to think that the real problem with online advertising is sizing standards. The real problem with online advertising is that it stinks, from a creative and interactive standpoint. It doesn't matter if it's 30K or 40K, if its 336x280 or 120x160. It's what's inside that counts.

That's why the FTC guidelines are a good thing. They may have got it wrong in Old Media, but they're trying to get it right in New Media. It's not the format of the blog; it's how we show up on them. The FTC says, "be honest, or else." I say "there's nothing easier." Too bad the IAB has a problem with that.

And it got me thinking: What if the IAB ran things instead of the Fed?

Stay Tuned.

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