Transparency in Blogging. AKA, What Blogs Aren’t Telling You about Their Relationships, and the FTC

FTC-logoOvernight I received an interesting email from one of the affiliate programs I belong to. It stressed the need to comply with the Federal Trade Commission‘s (FTC) guidelines when it comes to “endorsements and testimonials” and when we, as bloggers, are compensated in some way.

Graphic Policy since its founding has always been ahead of the curve, believing in full transparency when we receive a product for free, or when we might be compensated when something is purchased. For example, many of the clothing posts have affiliate links, and we get a cut of that (though we’re talking change usually). It’s something we’d cover even if we didn’t, but even so, at the bottom of such posts you find language making it clear that this is the case. And, by clicking and purchasing through those links, you help pay the bills and support the site.

I started this from the beginning for the reason that the average person doesn’t know the relationship between these types of sites and publishers/manufacturers, and it’s the moral and ethical thing to do. I know as a consumer myself, I’d view a review differently if I found out people paid for the items themselves, received the items for free, or were even paid for the items. For the record, I don’t believe we’ve ever been paid upfront for anything. If you purchase something, at times we get a cut, that’s it. I still am not sure how I’d feel about actually being paid for a post, and we’ve gotten offers.

make-it-rain-dollarsAnd while we disclose as much as we can, other sites do not, many go out of their way to obfuscate what the relationships are, and what has been received for free. This applies to YouTube reviews (I thank the publisher who gives me the product and say it was provided for free, and also use our disclosure language in the description), and admittedly, I don’t always remember to do so in the video itself.

The FTC rules are clear, the relationship must be made in language people can understand and be honest in the details. You don’t need to say I received $1000 for something, but saying I was paid is enough. Saying I received something for free to review is good.

When it comes to getting items for free the FTC says this in their pretty detailed FAQ:

I’m a blogger. I heard that every time I mention a product on my blog, I have to say whether I got it for free or paid for it myself. Is that true?

No. If you mention a product you paid for yourself, there isn’t an issue. Nor is it an issue if you get the product for free because a store is giving out free samples to its customers.

The FTC is only concerned about endorsements that are made on behalf of a sponsoring advertiser. For example, an endorsement would be covered by the FTC Act if an advertiser – or someone working for an advertiser – pays you or gives you something of value to mention a product. If you receive free products or other perks with the expectation that you’ll promote or discuss the advertiser’s products in your blog, you’re covered. Bloggers who are part of network marketing programs where they sign up to receive free product samples in exchange for writing about them also are covered.

Or this example:

When should I say more than that I got a product for free?

It depends on what else (if anything) you received from the company.

For example, if an app developer gave you their 99-cent app for free in order for you to review it, that might not have much effect on the weight that readers give to your review. But if the app developer also gave you $100, that would have a much greater effect on the credibility of your review. So a disclosure that simply said you got the app for free wouldn’t be good enough.

Similarly, if a company gave you a $50 gift card to give away to one of your readers and a second $50 gift card to keep for yourself, it wouldn’t be good enough to only say that the company gave you a gift card to give away.

They also give this example for a video game reviewer:

I’m doing a review of a videogame that hasn’t been released yet. The manufacturer is paying me to try the game and review it. I was planning on disclosing that the manufacturer gave me a “sneak peak” of the game. Isn’t that enough to put people on notice of my relationship to the manufacturer?

No, it’s not. Getting early access doesn’t mean that you got paid. Getting a “sneak peak” of the game doesn’t even mean that you get to keep the game. If you get early access, you can say that, but if you are paid, you should say so.

There’s more than just that one link above. There’s this guide on endorsements, and this one on disclosures in digital advertising.

There was a debate many months ago on Twitter about this, and many other bloggers felt I was a bit extreme in my view. I may be, but I know this is how I’d like to see it elsewhere when reading reviews. You can’t always tell what’s received for free and what’s not. Publishers play favorites and don’t provide the same access elsewhere. You’ll notice we almost never have early reviews from one high profile publisher, and have finally started to use the disclosure language for another.

zdn2ti5rc4rwurz8tygoThere’s a site that’s owned by a comic publishing company, another at one time was owned by a rather large entertainment company. Both review(ed) related products of their own company, as well as the competition, and when tell people of the conflict of interest, most aren’t aware it exists, and affects their opinion of the general coverage. If a site continually spoiled news, or comics, while being owned by a publisher themselves whom they don’t do that to, would it make you take pause at their coverage? There’s instances of people who have worked on a comic reviewing it, or a close relationship between the individual and the publisher not disclosed. Some have blogged at a site, while writing comics published by publishers they were covering! A. David Lewis covered this very topic in a Storify post in November, and a lot is laid out there through Twitter from some of the offenders. I’ve wanted to write about this topic since, and had been mulling it before Lewis’ post, but with the reminder email I recently received, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the topic.

While this is a small sector not likely to see enforcement from the FTC, it’s a question of “journalistic integrity,” “morals,” and in the end “ethics.” I know I feel good in everything I endorse, link to, or review, because I’ve disclosed as much as I can or need to. And because of that, you the reader are clear where I (and the site) is coming from, so you can make the best informed decision as to how to weigh the post.

Maybe in the end I should take comfort in what I produce (and what we produce here) and the transparency we stick by, and be skeptical of everything I read elsewhere, just like you the reader should be doing as well.

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