The FTC yesterday released an updated version of “16 C.F.R. Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising: Notice Announcing Adoption of Revised Guides” — guidelines for acceptable endorsements and reviews of consumer products. The full document is available from the federal register.
In brief, the new guidelines attempt to answer the question of when an endorsement is paid and how that endorsement should be credited, and how that relationship needs to be explained. The text that seems most relevant to me is the following, on page 9 of the guidelines:
Thus, a consumer who purchases a product with his or her own money and praises it on a personal blog or on an electronic message board will not be deemed to be providing an endorsement. In contrast, postings by a blogger who is paid to speak about an advertiserâs product will be covered by the Guides, regardless of whether the blogger is paid directly by the marketer itself or by a third party on behalf of the marketer.
… For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. 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,” as are postings by participants in network marketing programs. Similarly, consumers who join word of mouth marketing programs that periodically provide them products to review publicly (as opposed to simply giving feedback to the advertiser) will also likely be viewed as giving sponsored messages.
My reading of this says that if I frequently reviewed commercial items (books or software, for example) that were given me free of charge for review purposes, I would need to disclose the source of the item I was reviewing. So far, that hasn’t happened, although web developers have occasionally told me about their new (and uniformly free) RSS services. I have (sometimes) chosen to review those tools. No money has ever changed hands and, because the products themselves are free, I received no financial advantage through my reviewing.
That the FTC is weighing in on blogs and their role in our consumer society shows what an impact the blogosphere has made. It is important for all of us bloggers to keep in mind that what we write can have a financial impact, whether we are commercially-driven or not (I am in the sense that I really hope you click those ads in the sidebar, but not in the sense I’m looking for money to write what I write, when I write it). And when there are financial incentives, as defined by the FTC, it’s important to state them explicitly.