The Federal Trade Commission wants me - the blogger - to inform you - the reader - about any financial ties I might have with the companies or the products I write about, just to make sure there's no conflict of interest there.
That's fine. I have nothing to hide. And aside from a beer or cup of coffee every now and then, I pretty much have a long-standing rule about accepting freebies for my coverage from any company or their PR firms. Maybe that's because I come from the newspaper world, where strong ethics were always considered to be a key element of our credibility. Or maybe it's because I get a regular paycheck for what I do, as opposed to independent bloggers who do this on their own because of their love for the topics they write about.
Regardless, I have mixed feelings about the need for government intervention via the FTC's once-every-29-years-update to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, a document meant to ensure that consumers aren't fooled by an "unbiased review" of a product when the company itself actually paid the reviewer. Of course, that's not to say that such a review is written differently because of who signed the check - but perception goes a long way, doesn't it? From the FTC's announcement:
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.
Yes, the line is fuzzy and there's sure to be some bloggers out there who are willing to write anything to get that payment. But those types are usually pretty easy to see through and figuring out what they're up to is not that easy. As readers, we're not such idiots that we believe every word that's put in front of us. (Do we?)
At a time when critics are pointing out that government intervention is getting a bit out of hand, I can't believe that anyone in Washington would try to impose restrictions like these. The free press is undergoing a lot of changes - just look at what's happening to newspapers. The intervention of government will just further cloud matters while the news industry is trying to sort out what it's becoming.
I could see if the FTC updated these rules every few years, but this document hasn't been touched since 1980. As a journalist, I don't think I'm ready to accept new rules and restrictions over my profession that could be in place until the next update. At this rate, we'll be living with these new rules until the FTC revisits them again in 2038.
By then, maybe the news media will have found a new business model and we no longer will have to worry about bloggers accepting freebies.