Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Federal Trading Commission: Aims for a Headshot. Should Bloggers beware?

Yesterday evening, late enough to not add a proper respond, I learned via Ana from the Book Smugglers through Twitter that the Federal Trade Commission [FTC] had decided to become hip with the time and revise its texts in regards to the growing importance of the Internet as a marketing tool used for promotion of products. To be honest I am not exactly knowledgeable in the more formal English vocabulary, so I am giving you my simple minded understanding of the matter. It would seem that the FTC is trying to regulate review bloggers or so this paragraph leads me to believe.

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

First though here are the two articles, which influenced my own opinion on this matter. First there is the Book Smugglers official reply to this article and the next one, also provided by the Smugglers, hosts a conversation with a FTC employee over at Reluctant Habits.

At first sight what the FTC is trying to do seems pointless, because with or without disclosure the followers of any blog will continue to trust the reviewer based on previous reviews and a reputation created through online behavior in general. It’s the mechanism behind book review bloggers for instance, which makes the practice so appealing. A book reviewer receives books without any shipping fees and in return the reviewer supplies the publishers with a critique, which I have to say with most blogs is thorough, analytical and never cheerfully positive and full of praise. That’s not how we as review bloggers function and being generally excited about what we do shouldn’t be considered as a form of endorsement especially, when we do what we do free of charge.

This as well as the interview leads me to think that the FTC has a rather skewed grasp of the nature of blogging. I say this on Cleland’s arguments and how he keeps making comparisons between professional reviewing and review blogging, when in reality both work in a different variety of ways and different rules apply to both. The FTC seems to not understand that and although so far bloggers are asked of the minimum aka supplying information whether their review copies have been sent my publishers or not. Nevertheless I feel that this is pointless and accomplishes nothing or at least the purpose is generally lost to me.

From the same interview I also learn that the FTC won’t be exerting control over the bloggers per se, since the sheer number of bloggers reviewing any kind of product would be enough to overwhelm a hundred FTCs, but will press the companies supplying the products. I interpret this [and this is the most drastic scenario] as the end of the review blogging as we know it in the US. It’s true that reviewers discuss products that they originally own, in our case, we do review books we have bought or have taken from the library, but the bristling activity on our blogs comes from the review copies and ARCs and galleys we receive. So if the FTC is extra serious about this, then the US publishers will be forced into dropping the practice of sending review copies to bloggers revert back to the print venues. However I do not think it will come to that.

Then there is the issue of international bloggers. I am extremely curious about this one, since I am one of the bloggers based outside US borders and despite that use Blogger and aim for the US and UK audience. The FTC will not have any jurisdiction over these blogs and what’s the procedure then? Does this apply for us? I am also considering that if the FTC press publishers so that they are unable to send review copies inside US border, would that mean that they will move their practice outside the borders favoring international bloggers?

My speculations are just that. Extreme suggestions if this doesn’t turn out to be just a one week alarm raiser. My realistic estimations however are that nothing of any great importance will happen.


Hagelrat said...

i'm inclined to agree, there will be plenty of kick up and hopefully they will back off a bit. Either way I don't see much happening to change the world as we know it.

Kat @ FanLit said...

I only read the FTC statement -- not the responses you linked -- but it seems to me that even if they do require disclosure, all we have to do is tack on a statement to our reviews which basically says "The publisher sent me a free review copy of this book."

As you say, our readers already know we get free review copies and that it doesn't skew our opinions. (If it did, they wouldn't be reading our reviews.)

BTW, I like the new look of your blog, Harry. ~Kat

Harry Markov said...

@ Adele: We discussed this at length I feel, so I am just going to nod my head in agreement on this one.

@ Kat: Yes, it's not so bad. We are asked for a fairly simple thing, so I can't see much danger here, but I am against being told what to do. The Web is supposed to be about freedom of how to express yourself and establish one's own etiquette.

And you are correct. This doesn't change anything for the review blogs with following.

Thanks for the compliment. I am excited by the new look as well.

ediFanoB said...

I posted this comment over at Fantasy Cafe.

I love to read books and I like to share my opinions about books.
I own a copy of each book I reviewed so far. But how want they check whether I bought, stole, lend, won or received a review copy of the book which I reviewed. Will someone from FTC visit me in Germany? Do I have to scan each proof of purchase and post it beside the cover of the book? And shall I add my social security number?

I would be a lot easier to prohibit reviewer copies, giveaways and so on.
Why not prohibit book reviews? Or even better book blogs.
No. No good idea because they don't get money.

Best idea is that you have to pay for each review you write or publishers have to pay tax for each reviewer copy.

You have the same bureaucrats in US like we have in the European Union.
They spend the whole day thinking about how they can make life more difficult for us.If you would spend all the money they waste you could feed a lot of poor children.

I alway get angry when I read this kind of stuff.

Harry Markov said...

@ Michael I couldn't agree more. I am super puzzled as to why the government in the US would feel that this is their main priority...

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