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April 04, 2009

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Mark Amtower

David
Remember when the post office in the early/mid 1990s floated a plan to put "stamps" on email?

My prediction is this FTC plan will meet with another web-based Boston Tea Party where every blogger will endorse a product or 2, or 3.

My faves are Dunkin D, Coke, cheez-ts and reese cups - the 4 main food groups. Oh - and Sharpies!

What are your favorites?

Not that I have an opinion.

Amtower

Ian Skerrett

Yes of course you should disclose you received the books for free. Transparency is the source of trust in today's world.

Harry Gries

From a practical perspective, I don't think the gov't has armies of prosecutors to go after each and every blogger that writes a review. It seems it would be very hard to prove that even a single review was "unsubstantiated". From a personal perspective, I always practice full disclosure in my blog.

Tim Dempsey

My view is that we wouldn't need to fear regulation if we policed ourselves properly. We have a long way to go to clean up the noise out there (some of it completely bogus) -- and if ne'er do wells are going to cause harm in the meantime, anxious administrations (like the current one) will be tempted to get involved. We will only have ourselves to blame if these types of compliance regs get implemented.

Justin Hitt

An important issue to consider, especially as a business selling on-line. Will testimonials from customers (collected off line or otherwise) require extra paperwork? Will video testimonials from event marketing need recorded disclosures? Thanks.

Ecommerce Job... Where are you?

Doesn't Amazon have a full program based on free merchandise for top reviewers?

What are the implications on free Kindle book downloads?

It sounds like there's the wrong focus. The focus should be on the company ethics. It's more important for employees of a company disclosing their association when posting about the company's products. If a blogger is paid by the company then it falls more into the "employee" category.

A company should welcome bad reviews as needed feedback. Go back and see if you need to fix bugs in your new product before it goes out to the public. Then let everyone know the bugs are fixed. Or, release better products first time around.

Joseph Ratliff

Could this also lead to the IRS forcing you to report the "free item" in value as income?

For example...if you received a bunch of $20 books to review over the course of the year, as well as some courses etc...could you be forced at some point to report those on a 1040? Hmmmm...

On this issue, wouldn't the "intent" of both the review and reviewer have to enter the equation? The widely known "fake reviews" of grant programs had the intent to deceive and capitalize on that deception...therefore should warrant this kind of legislation. But for more of the "gray" reviews that litter the internet...where do you draw the line? Even if you disclose fully...does that protect you with this legislation?

Those are important questions IMHO.

Ari Herzog

Agreeing with Tim Dempsey that policing is necessary, the question is whether each person chooses to enforce him/herself, or whether, as Paul Chaney wrote last month, is it time for a forum about sponsored posts? See http://www.conversationalmediamarketing.com/2009/03/paid-conversations-if-you-cant-beat-em.html

Sean Supplee

There is a ton of false promises out there anymore on the internet more so then ever before. I think it is a good idea someone steps in and gives people a reason not to put up false claims and over hype a product just to make a sale on their blog. More honest bloggers is what I would like to see from this.

justin locke

Well i had 5 knee jerk reactions: 1) as you have mentioned yourself, phony blog posts are generally exposed by the other bloggers very quickly, and that is a much better “policing” power 2) if someone with a popular blog wrote a phony review they would quickly lose readership 3) this quote: “Word-of-mouth marketing is not exempt from the laws of truthful advertising.” So if i recommend a product to you in a conversation, i am responsible/liable? It's unenforcible. 4) Do you know of any instance where someone actually was mislead into buying something they didn’t want due to a falsified blog? 5) And here’s the key: bureaucrats are always looking to justify their salaries and (due to the "edifice complex") increase their power . . . and they see an opportunity to do that here. They’re magnifying the potential threat to justify offering protection we do not need or want. but yeah, if you got the prodcut for free you should mention that. actually, if you're a popular blogger, i just assume. it's been a common practice with print and broadcast reviewers for decades.

Mike Lynn

All comments are relevant from a business standpoint. The broader implication is the raw CONTROL this White House and its henchmen wish to exercise over the American people. Witness how banks who took TARP monies and who wish to now repay the loans are being denied this opportunity. (Read: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123879833094588163.html). You better be ready to defend yourself for simply sneezing! There will be no quarter given by the Obama administration relating to free speech - whether it's about politics or products.

Tony Darrick Baker

I guess I'm outside the norm on this one. I think this is outrageous.

15 years ago (long before blogs) I would receive CD's for free, and then I would get paid to write a review about the music.

Sometimes my review about a CD was so negative that the magazine would not publish the article. I still got paid to write the review regardless.

Should I have made a notation in the articles that I was being paid to write and that I received the music for free?

No! It's nobody's business but my own. After all, a review is simply my opinion anyway. Here we have the government again trying to be the thought-police. Are they going to tax our opinions?

This is obviously a free speech issue. But it seems like nobody cares about free speech unless it's to protect left-wing political advocates.

I don't care if you bought a book/product, or if someone gave it to you. In fact, I don't even care if you're getting paid to write about it.

Ultimately, it's about trust. If I find that I consistently agree with you about the products, books, etc.. then I'll trust your opinion, regardless of the details behind the scenes.

Otherwise, I'll move on. Integrity in this case shouldn't be about full disclosure. It should simply about giving an honest opinion.

- Tony Darrick Baker

Seth Godin

This is actually GREAT NEWS for all real humans. The reason? It eliminates the financial incentive for the "obey: no more belly fat" type of fake blogs that are about to wipe us out.

The purpose of the rule and the only practical way it will be used is this: if you run a site that you call a blog and it can be shown that you're deliberately misleading people, you're busted.

Right now, you're not. Hence spamblogs and sock puppet blogs and ads that look like blogs.

If I like David's new book, it doesn't matter if I got it for free, it doesn't matter if he pays me a million dollars. Me saying "I like this book," is not the same as some stooge saying, "this creme (not a lotion) eliminated my belly fat." That statement is a lie, clear and simple, designed to deceive.

Here's what ethical marketers always forget (the DMA led the way in this stupidity): regulation of the bad guys encourages good guys, it doesn't hurt is.

Imagine how much better email marketing would work today if the FTC had successfully organized the idea that commercial email should cost a penny. The good guys would have flourished. Instead, spam is 94% of all email.

Careful what you wish against.

Debbie Josendale

As I was reading this article and the comments, I kept thinking of Seth Godin’s book "All Marketers are Liars". When I read the last comment I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was written by Seth Godin!

I think a quote from his book sums up the crosshairs of this issue “If your stories are inauthentic, you cross the line from fib to fraud.”

The practice of receiving free goods or other perks in return for testimonials and positive reviews etc, has been going on since the beginning of…business. As we have evolved from marketing in the stone age to marketing in the Internet Age, the lines between truth, fib and fraud have become easier to blur.

The fact that the FTC is interested points to the immense power and influence wielded by online marketers. With that power and influence comes a responsibility that I think all online marketers and companies must acknowledge. If you are asking or encouraging people to spend their money to buy any product or service, you have a responsibility to present all the facts, and then let the consumer make their decision based on those facts.

If your stories are authentic, they will buy regardless of whether you were “given” the product or not.

The best stimulus growth plan does not include the FTC policing internet marketing. There’s an old saying that rules are made to serve the lowest common denominator. If we don’t want government interference, it is incumbent upon internet marketers to raise the ethics bar.

P.S. In keeping with full disclosure, I have not received any payments or free books from Seth Godin. Darn it!

Amanda Hayes

I'm taking Law of PR & Advertising at Kent State this semester, and we've been looking at the evolution of commercial speech protection. This legal/ethical blogging question reminds me of the law surrounding deception by testimonials and endorsements.

If we believed every person on TV who claimed to have "lost 50 pounds in ten days" or "made $200,000 from home last year," we'd be in trouble. So what's the difference between that and if we believe every blogger's "real-life story"?

It seems to me that a blogger with a significant following, someone who's considered a leader in the field, whatever it might be, should have more responsibility concerning what he or she puts out to the public. "Real" celebrities already have to follow this rule in other media, with the conditions they must meet when endorsing a product.

Should all blogs be subject to stricter rules about blog-imonials? It seems like way too big of a task to monitor. But in my opinion, it would make sense for bloggers of a certain status to be held more responsible for their influence on others.

Great post and blog! Thanks!

Nancy Weintraub

Disclosure, transparency, and authenticity have always been important ingredients in product reviews, whether online or not.

Legislation should not be a substitute for common sense, ethical communication practices.  But if businesses and individuals do not adequately disclose receipt of “free products or services” in exchange for a review, and worse yet, if they intentionally make untrue statements, they should be held liable. Hopefully these regulations will not stifle freedom of opinion and valuable content to help aid buyers in their decision process. I have found user generated reviews (whether they be for products or services) to be immensely valuable as a consumer.  When I bought a new digital camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5K), I relied on product reviews (and user ratings). When I planned a family excursion last year to Southern Italy, I relied heavily on user reviews and recommendations.  In a related article in yesterday’s SF Chronicle, Travel journalist Arthur Frommer talks about “Why you can't trust user-generated Web site reviews” (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2009/04/05/TR7816O7I2.DTL )and indicated that he has removed “Reader’s selection” from his guidebook because of manipulated content (and non-disclosure of freebies by hotels and restaurants). I find Frommer’s solution to non-disclosure to be much more disturbing than the proposed FTC legislation. 

As I wrote in a recent blog “Using Web Sources as Marketing Evidence – When Would You Declare a Mistrial?” (http://cianaassociates.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/using-web-sources-as-marketing-evidence-%E2%80%93-when-would-you-declare-a-mistrial/) opinion-based evidence (e.g., industry analyst reports, product reviews, customer experiences) has been used for many years to support business’ claims of product benefits.   Easy web access and social media sites have proliferated the number and types of opinion-based evidence (e.g., blogs, micro-blogs citizen reviews, online surveys, etc.).”

The same rules of disclosure and liability should apply to online opinion-based evidence.
FTC wants to regulate online viral marketing content and Frommer wants to eliminate it. Either way, how about applying disclosure and transparent, honest, ethical behavior to reviews in order to have the best of both?

David Meerman Scott

Wow - some great discussions here. Thanks, all, for taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments. David

John R. Sedivy

I am of a laissez-faire mindset. One of the beauties of blogging is, at least to the best of my knowledge, is that it is unregulated, and therefore untampered with. Government intervention will not guarantee truthfulness and transparency and will only add complexity, and therefore lessen the overall experience. Of course this means that consumers may get burnt, as with any other forum, however I believe this is a great opportunity for bloggers with integrity to distinguish themselves and develop relationships with their potential buyers. Of course this takes time as with anything of quality but makes for a more pure environment.

I tend to review quite a few books on my blog and to date I have purchased each one. At some point I imagine I may be offered free material which if accepted I plan to fully disclose as transparency is key and in my opinion separates quality blogging from the masses. However my thought is I will not accept material - due to potentially tarnishing the perception of my blog.

There is an interesting book called Blogging Heroes by Michael A. Banks - the author basically interviews 30 top bloggers. One trend I noticed was that the most respected bloggers each stated that they do not accept free material, especially if they are expected to review said item. The main point is that even if as a reviewer your intentions are pure the perception is that a blogger would be receiving something in exchange for a review - and since perception is reality - you get the point. For this reason my present thought is that I will not receive free material in exchange for reviews, even if offered, my reputation is too important.

Brett Duncan, MarketingInProgress.com

I've spent the majority of my career marketing products heavily regulated by FDA (vitamins), FTC (network marketing) and EPA (insecticides). My gut is that the FTC is especially interested in claims regarding making money, losing weight, "safe" products, etc.

All that to say that it's going to be tough to regulate someone not employed by the company, and I think they'll find the backlash to be rather stout. This is how marketing works now - they need to embrace it (maybe require disclaimers to opinions).

@bdunc1

Irongleet

This is more hyper regulatory left wing BS. People are just a herd of dumb cows who will be crue slaughtered by evil profit seeking capitalist businessbloggers unless someone ( you guess it! the govt! ) is there to protect them. The weak minded exist solely to be preyed upon by the strong and no amount of regulation willalter this fundamental law of nature. It's as if these idiots think they can legislate the will to power out of existence.

This is really scary -- this gentle nursing home US society is becoming, a place where everything is as bland as it is safe, where everyone works harder for less but thats ok because soon the rich will no longer be with us. ... I'm getting pisssed.

Obama is monstrous abortion, a mocking song on democracy.

End of rant...

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