I watched the news surface yesterday about the FTC’s guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials and how they now affect bloggers.
I read the entire 81 page document (it’s a bit of a drag to read but I recommend that you do), shrugged my shoulders and moved on. I decided to stay out of the inevitable shit storm that I knew the blogosphere would make of this and return to my navel gazing. After all, I’ve been disclosing since early 2007.
I’m sure that the most excited I got was to tell Sara: “The only people who will complain about this are people with something to hide”. I may or may not have been correct.
My feed reader is full of posts (which I did not read) about the guidelines today. My twitter stream is seeing more than a few mentions and as far as I can see the general reaction either “meh” or “oh hell no… we’re all doomed!”.
Except of course for my good friend Steven Hodson. His Canadian sensibilities are so tightly wound up by this that his man spuds must be pushing past his tonsils at this point. According to Steven the FTC guidelines are seven shades of wrong, unfair and make us bloggers out to be “scumbags”.
Apparently I am also a “fuckwad” because I think these guidelines are actually good for the blogosphere and the internet as a whole.
As this misguided Irishman sees it the objections to the FTC guidelines are as follows
- Bloggers shouldn’t be subject to these guidelines because traditional media outlets appear not be
- Our readers are smart enough to know if we’re hawking shite because they know us and they’re smart.
- Oh yes, did I mention that the traditional media outlets don’t have to!
Okay, where to begin.
The FCC guidelines are about more than bloggers. They cover all “new media” users. That means, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, everywhere. Basically if it’s online and you’re not a “proper” journo, this affects you.
The biggest flaw in the logic of those claiming that these guidelines are a bad thing lies in the belief that it is about bloggers, or more specifically you as a specific blogger. It’s not! It’s about search engines and search results.
It doesn’t matter if your readership can spot that you have an apparent “mystery change in attitude” about a product and know you’re suffering from freebie induced verbal diarrhea. Your readers, who on the whole I seriously doubt are not smart enough to notice, unless you became a shill on every product review (1 in 10 could just be called a bad call), are not the people these guidelines are designed to protect.
Look at the stats of your blog and see where the vast majority of you traffic comes from. Go on, I’ll wait….
Just to state the blindingly obvious, the vast majority of your traffic comes from search engines like Google. Bloggers also get a lot of traffic from social networks where the person clicking through may be clicking on a retweet or a forward and have no idea who the heck you are. Damn, they wouldn’t even care if you died 5 minutes after hitting the post button, they’re just interested in scanning your review, endorsement or otherwise of a product.
Those people coming from Google and Twitter have no idea if you’re affiliated with a company, got paid for your review or accepted a blowjob in order to write 100 glowing words. They don’t know you or your reputation.
Search engine results can also be polluted. It’s all to easy for a company to solicit a 1000 reviews from high profile bloggers, or 10000 reviews from “average bloggers” or even more from Z list bloggers like myself.
This is common place behaviour. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it isn’t.
Starting to see how this is not just about you as a blogger and your readership? It’s about large numbers of bloggers and new media users combined with all their readerships and when you think of it that way, the FTC guidelines start to make a lot of sense.
Bloggers should be incredibly happy about these guidelines because they will help protect the impartiality of our beloved internet.
Addressing the issue of traditional media, according to the FTC (page 47):
The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media. In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media (i.e., where a newspaper, magazine, or television or radio station with independent editorial responsibility assigns an employee to review various products or services as part of his or her official duties, and then publishes those reviews) to be sponsored advertising messages. Accordingly, such reviews are not “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides.100 Under these circumstances, the Commission believes, knowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements.
As such their point is sound. There is a difference between being paid to review products where that is known and accepted by the audience from the get go and, say, reviewing a new Xbox 360 game when an impoverished blogger may not have been able to afford the game themselves.
There is a fundamental difference between your actual job being paid to review things for a traditional media outlet, and a blogger who doesn’t get paid reviewing a freebie or being paid to review a product.
There is a massive difference in expectation. There is simply no way to know for the average visitor landing on a blog from a search engine, what the bloggers position is without disclosure.
It is perhaps this difference between traditional media outlets and bloggers that make these guidelines so beneficial for the blogosphere and the internet as a whole.
We now have a proper platform with which to make ourselves stand out from the shills. Those of us that disclose will carry more weight and authority. Folks that are shills can now be properly called out and scandalized (perhaps not the kind of fodder the blogosphere needs but think of the posts) and that may help cull the crap.
We can also stand apart and above from our traditional media brethren, and rather than this being a free pass for them, we can now criticize them and their behaviour, their nondisclosure and self serving interests and bring pressure to bear for positive change.
We can also, finally, bring some respectability to the cesspool of the blogosphere which is overpopulated by self serving marketers and folks out to make a quick buck under the guise of blogging. The shit might finally sink and the cream may rise to the top.
So, why the problem with disclosing? It’s not about serving ourselves, it’s about serving the wider internet. Focusing on your own blog is just self-centered and shows you’re missing the bigger picture.